David Chart's Japan Diary

June 21st 2004

There's a typhoon raging outside, so I'm at home in the middle of the day. School closes when a storm alert is issued, so that the teachers, in particular, can get home. (Most, but not all, of the students live within walking distance of school, so it's less of a problem for them.) We got the first two periods, and then school closed. That's the first time since I've been here, but having checked the alerts, there's a heavy rain alert, a gale alert, and a flooding alert. Listening to the weather outside, those all strike me as perfectly plausible. I got literally soaked to my skin walking home, despite taking my raincoat as a precaution, and despite it not raining while I was going to school. And it's got worse since then.

Last week's weather, right up to yesterday, was great. Clear skies, not too humid, cool breezes much of the time. Today appears to be packing all of last week's surplus weather in.

Last week was also heavy on the tests. On Monday, we had the test for our ikyuu grammar option class. We're missing today's class, so it's handy that we got the test in first. I've had that one back, although it's the only one that's already been returned. I got 40 out of 48, with a comment from Kato-sensei saying that it was a good result. Why? Well, the number isn't that great, but none of my mistakes were to do with the grammar we'd learned in class. In one case I mis-spelled a word (yes, it is possible, even in Japanese), in another I slightly misremembered an idiomatic expression, in another I used the wrong particle with a verb. Lots of little mistakes, all indicating that I was using the grammar to make up sentences rather than just parroting memorised examples. Hence, I think, the comment.

On Tuesday, we had the test for our business conversation class. I don't have the results back, but it seemed to go OK. On Thursday we had the Yamasa jitsuryoku test, which is the big test given every term to current students and to new students, so that the school can create appropriate classes. On Friday, we had a conversation test for our class. Tomorrow, we have the final class test.

With all those tests going on, it's a good job that I had a chance to buy another gakugyou o-mamori (study charm) over the weekend.


On Friday, I went to Tokyo from school. This was on the way to Nikko, which is a couple of hours north of Tokyo and thus a bit tricky to do in an afternoon. I managed to meet Yuriko at 6:30, so that we could visit a small contemporary art gallery (SCAI the bathhouse) before having dinner. It was just the two of us, because Hana-chan (Yuriko's friend who went with us to Ise as well, and with whom we had dinner on a subsequent Tokyo visit) hadn't finished work. We ate at the sushi place near Sawanoya, which was just as good as last time. Over dinner, we talked about school, work, visas, politics... Normal dinner conversation really, and all in Japanese. Yuriko said that my Japanese was getting even better, and it's about three months since I last saw her, so it's good that she can see progress.

[The weather has got even more violent while I've been typing this.]

On Saturday, the plan was to meet at a railway station north of Tokyo at 1:30, from where we would head to Nikko in Ako-san's car. (Ako-san is another of Yuriko's friends.) That gave me a free morning, so I decided to visit a couple more of the recommended outdoor places from the Frommer's guide. At breakfast, Sawa-san (the owner of Sawanoya) introduced me to a friend of his who works at a tour company in Mie-ken (quite close to here), and so we talked a bit about tourism, in Japanese, while we ate.

After breakfast, I headed for the Higashi-gyoen (East Garden) at the Imperial Palace. I had mentioned to Yuriko that I was thinking of going there, and she said that, while one of her foreign friends strongly recommended it, she'd never been, nor had any of her Japanese friends. Maybe Japanese people don't know about it...

Ninomaru, Higashigyoen Central Tokyo on a Saturday morning. You just have to pick your spot. (Ninomaru, Higashigyoen)

The garden was beautiful. It has two main sections, the Honmaru and Ninomaru gardens, which have very different characters. The Honmaru has substantial lawns, and a lot of trees planted around. It also contains the remains of the keep of Edo castle, built in the early seventeenth century and burned down, never to be replaced, in 1657. The remains consist of the stone-reinforced mound that served as foundations. The garden also marks the site of one of the most notorious incidents in Japanese history, when a daimyo struck a court official, was ordered to kill himself, and then, some months later, was avenged by 47 of his retainers, who broke into the official's home and killed him. The retainers then gave themselves up to the shogun.

Yasukuni Shrine The Yasukuni Shrine.

The Ninomaru is based around a pond, and is, in my opinion, much the nicer of the two gardens. The path, as is typical, winds up and down small hills, so that the view of the garden is constantly changing.

The most remarkable thing was that the garden was almost deserted, on a beautiful Saturday morning. It's right in the centre of Tokyo, and the entrance is one minute's walk from one of the largest interchange underground stations. Admission is free. There are lots of benches, so that you can sit and enjoy the garden. And still, it was trivial for me to take pictures with no-one else in them. I can only imagine that Japanese people just don't realise that it's there. Most of the Imperial Palace is private, so they possibly think that that part is too.

From there, I walked north to visit Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni Shrine is the most controversial shrine in Japan, because it's the shrine to Japan's war dead. This includes about half a dozen convicted war criminals. As a result, any official visits to the shrine provoke an outcry from Korea and China, and probably other countries as well. On the other hand, failing to visit the shrine would provoke an outcry from the nationalist right-wing in Japan. As a result, Koizumi visits the shrine every year, [A futon just flew past the window. It's quite windy...] but only in a personal capacity. After all, the Chinese and Korean governments don't get to vote in Japanese elections.

Personally, I think the controversy is a little overdone. The Second World War was a long time ago. Japan had one sixty-year period of aggression against Asia, which ended sixty years ago, and while they certainly committed war crimes, they did nothing on the scale of the Holocaust. (Come to that, I'm fairly sure that you can trump every Japanese war crime with a British war crime committed in the same area, a hundred or so years earlier.) Germany, on the other hand, had two thousand years of history of invading the rest of the Europe, and did carry out the Holocaust. So why are Asian countries still so worried about Japan?

After Yasukuni, I had lunch, and read some more of Harii Pottaa on my way to meet up with everyone. ('Everyone' being Yuriko, Hana, and Ako.)


We gathered at about the right time, and left rather before two o'clock. We had some problems getting onto the expressway pointing in the right direction, but finally managed it, and then had a clear run all the way to Nikko. We stopped at the railway station to pick up a map so that we could find my hotel, and I checked in. The others were staying at a different hotel some distance away, so after I dropped my luggage off we set off again.

The road to the next place, Lake Chuzenji, climbs over the mountains and has a total of 48 hair-pin bends in it, 20 going up and 28 coming down. (The up and down roads are completely separate.) The view is quite spectacular, and on the way we had to stop because a family of monkeys had decided to cross the road. It was the first time I'd seen wild monkeys, and they really didn't seem very concerned about the cars. Obviously people try not to hit them... Yuriko had her window open to take photographs of the scenery, and had to close it quickly before the monkeys could try to rob us.

Yuriko at the waterfall Yuriko at Kegon-no-taki.

At the lake, we went to see Kegon-no-taki, which is one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. It really is spectacular. There are two viewing platforms, one at the top of the cliff, where you look down on it, and one a hundred metres below, towards the bottom, whence you can look up at it. You have to pay to go to the lower one, but we went to both anyway, and I took lots of pictures. On the bottom platform, despite the beautiful weather, it was quite cool, and we got rather wet from the spray from the falls.

Since everyone else was staying near the lake, we had dinner together there, and then I got the bus back to Nikko.

Yesterday was our main 'see Nikko' day. Yuriko and the others didn't get to Nikko until ten am, so I went for a little walk in the morning, along the river, to look at the 'narabijizo'. This is a series of several dozen stone buddha statues, all lined up along the side of a spectacular river gorge. I think the whole area is nominally a temple, but it's not closed off in any particular way, and admission there is free. The walk over took me through a 'stone park', which looked rather like the small stone circles you find in Cornwall, and which had a structure that looked remarkably like Thunderbird 3. I'm sure it's a traditional Buddhist structure of some sort, because I've seen other examples, but this one really did look more like a spaceship.

Once everyone else had arrived, we headed off to the main complex of temples and shrines. Nikko is the place where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined as 'The Great Shining Sun', or something like that. His mortal remains are mostly buried here, and his grandson's mausoleum is also to be found in the same area. The whole mountain is a World Heritage Site, and I can understand why.

The first place we visited was Rinnouji, a temple that was there long before the Toushogu shrine (where Ieyasu is enshrined). In fact, if I'm remembering correctly, it was the abbot of Rinnouji who convinced Ieyasu that he wanted to be enshrined in Nikko. Rinnouji has another beautiful Japanese garden, and also has a secret Buddha image. There are quite a few of these across Japan; statues that are either never seen at all, or which are only shown occasionally. The one at Rinnouji is shown every nine years, and it is on display at the moment.

It's tiny. It's about five centimetres tall, and if the attendant hadn't pointed it out to us, I doubt we would have noticed it within the elaborate housing. There was an expanded photograph on diplay, so that we could see what it looked like, and our ticket to see the image included a 'Secret Buddha O-Mamori'. I think these are supposed to be particularly effective.

The main hall of the temple has three large Buddha images, with Amida Buddha in the centre, Eleven-headed thousand-armed Kannon to his left, and a rather demonic-looking Buddha to his right. The statues are quite impressive, but the viewing angle isn't great; you are very close to them, and below, so you can't see them properly. I think this may be the Kamakura Daibutsu's big advantage; being outside, he's very easy to see.

Monkeys! Mum, Ray, and Silver... er, sorry. The three carved monkeys at Toushogu.

From there, we went to Toushogu itself. This is one of the most elaborate shrines in Japan, probably actually the most elaborate, and most of the wooden surfaces are covered with carvings. In the outer compound, the stables, which house a sacred white horse, are carved with monkeys, and one panel, the 'Sanzaru', or 'Three Monkeys', panel is particularly famous, because the monkeys are doing the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' thing.

The gate to the Inner Shrine is also famous. It is mainly white and gold, but it is covered with carvings of people, and more dragons than I could count. It seemed as if all the beams supporting the structure were carved in the shape of dragons. Apparently, it is known as the Twilight Gate, because you could spend a whole day looking at the designs carved there.

From the shrine, it is possible to climb to the mausoleum holding Ieyasu's remains. This is a serious climb; around two hundred stone steps. Climbing to the third floor in school every day is obviously good for me, because I wasn't too tired by the time I reached the top. There is a shrine building, and behind it a compound enclosing a bronze structure that actually holds Ieyasu's ashes. Next to that compound is a sacred cypress tree, called the 'wish-granting tree'. I'm not sure that it's still alive, but it is set up with the sacred rope and everything, and a few of the Japanese people there were making requests to it.

A cat. Asleep The Nemurineko at the Toushogu shrine at Nikko.

The entrance to the path up to the mausoleum has a particularly famous carving over the centre: the Nemurineko, or sleeping cat. I'm sure this must have some mythic significance somewhere, because otherwise it seems a very strange choice for a guardian of a path to a burial site. Apart from anything else, it's asleep.

At Toushogu, I bought my new study charm. I'm not sure just how scholarly Tokugawa Ieyasu was, but the charm is in a different style from the four I already had, so I've added it to my collection. They make good souvenirs.

The next main stop was the temple of the calling dragon. This is a temple containing a Buddha statue, and statues of the twelve gods who guard the people born in each year of the Chinese zodiac. (I'm a boreboar, by the way.) However, the temple is famous for the calling dragon painted on the ceiling. The attendant demonstrated. If you stand under the dragon's tail and bang two pieces of wood together, nothing much happens. When he did the same under its mouth, however, there was a ringing echo that took several seconds to die away.

By now, we were getting hungry, so it was on to the final visit, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. This was much quieter than the previous locations, as getting to it requires a bit of a walk from the other shrines. (Not much; maybe five minutes.) As Yuriko commented, it was very relaxing there. This shrine, Taiyuin Byo, isn't as spectacular as Toushogu, but it is still very impressive. It also seemed to get more benefit from its location than Toushogu. All of these shrines are on a wooded mountainside, but Taiyuin Byo somehow seemed to incorporate the scenery rather more. This may just have been because it was less crowded, of course.

After that, we had lunch (yuba udon, yuba being the local speciality of Nikko), I bought some o-miyage to give out at school (did that today), and we headed off in a leisurely fashion. I got all my trains, and got rained on very slightly while I was walking back from the station. Give today's weather, I think I timed the visit just about right. The rain is currently making the metal railings on my balcony ring...

Well, no time to update the family visit today, which almost certainly means that it won't get done before the next visit. Oh well.