David Chart's Japan Diary

July 19th 2004

Today is a national holiday in Japan: Sea Day. Since the weather is beautiful, I suspect that a lot of Japanese will be celebrating by going to the seaside. Personally, I slept late and I'm doing washing and such, to catch up after my weekend, which I spent travelling. More on that in a moment.

Last week was a fairly ordinary week, but the option classes did start. So far, it looks like the vocabulary class will be hard (lots of vocabulary), the grammar class will be easy (mostly revision, I might even change options), and composition and conversation will be pretty much as expected, so that's good. This quarter's off to a good start, and I'm even more or less up to date on homework.

This weekend's trip was packed, even by my standards. I went with Hang, which made it even better than it would have been otherwise. I noticed one advantage to spending the weekend with a classmate: we both made particular efforts to include recently-learnt grammar in our conversations. It probably wasn't completely appropriate, because the material we're learning now is mostly written or very formal, but that's the point. Using the material we learnt yesterday when there's a perfectly good and much simpler construction available is part of the joke.


We left straight from school, to go to Kurashiki. This is a town that is renowned all over Japan for its beautifully preserved old quarter, the Bikan ('beautiful sight'), with old, and now converted, warehouses along a willow-lined canal, and streets of old-style houses spread out beyond. It really is very picturesque. We were staying in Ryokan Kurashiki, which is right in the centre of the Bikan, on the canal, with a beautiful garden in the back. Our rooms were on the garden, and after we dropped our luggage off, we went for a walk around the canal.

Kurashiki Hang on one of the bridges in Kurashiki's Bikan.

It was very pleasant in the evening. The shops had all closed, so most of the tourists had gone home, and I was able to note where the various museums were for the Saturday. (Hang might have noted them, but she has no sense of direction.)

Dinner at the Ryokan Hang, in her ao-yai, and me having dinner in the ryokan.

After the walk, we had a kaiseki ryori dinner, one of the traditional Japanese meals with lots of different courses. As might be expected, it was delicious. It also included a snail (one each -- you don't get much of any one thing in kaiseki), so I ate snail for the first time. It was delicious. We changed before dinner, because I'd asked Hang to wear her ao-yai, the traditional Vietnamese national dress, and I dressed a bit smartly as well. Everyone commented on Hang's ao-yai, and she did, indeed, look very good in it.

Just before dinner I had a very reassuring experience. Our maid, who was definitely Japanese and had probably been working at the ryokan, using keigo (highly polite speech) for years, if not decades, managed to get it as wrong as it is possible to be. She used the form of speech you're only supposed to use about yourself, because it makes the subject of the verb very lowly, about Hang. She should have used the form that makes the subject very important, and did, indeed, correct herself almost immediately. It was a great relief to see that even experienced Japanese people can get keigo wrong, because it's really hard for me to keep straight.

After dinner, we had another little walk in the night while my room was converted from a dining room to a bed room. The canal was just as calm at night as in the evening.

Back at the ryokan, I had another new experience. The room had a western-style toilet, with a Japanese sticker giving instructions for use. It's reasonable, of course, because it's no more obvious how to use a western-style toilet than a Japanese-style one, but it was the first time I had actually seen such a thing.

Saturday morning was for museums and seeing a bit more of Kurashiki. The first museum was the Ohara Museum, which the guidebook described as unmissable. The guidebook was, as usual, right. The collection includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Modrian, Chagall, and lots of other famous, relatively recent, painters. There's one El Greco, but it seems a bit out of place. There's a separate building with work by Japanese artists, some of which I liked a great deal (Mitsutani Kunishiro, in particular). This included a room of modern art, which ran the usual range from completely uninspiring to surprisingly effective. Then there was a building devoted to craft art, including pottery, textiles, and prints. Finally, a smaller building contained a number of ancient pieces of Asian art, including a number of very impressive Chinese Buddhas. I think the Ohara is one of the best museums I've yet been to in Japan. It's a good size: you can see everything without being overwhelmed, but you don't feel that things took only a couple of minutes. The collection is extremely good; I'd say that the modern art was, on average, better than that in the Saatchi gallery in London. It's also well presented. The galleries didn't feel crowded with paintings, and there was space to appreciate some of the larger pieces.

After that, we went to the Rural Toy Museum, which was at the other extreme. The exhibits are all the sorts of things you could buy easily once, but which tend not to survive, and they were all, apparently, on display, crammed into the available space. The research material there for someone with an interest in Japanese toys and dolls was incredible, but I really felt it needed re-curating. That's probably Liba Taub's influence; like history of science objects, toys need more interpretation than masterwork paintings.

Then we wandered around a bit. We climbed to the Achi Shrine, which is on a hill overlooking the main part of the town, and then walked the historic streets for a bit before picking our luggage up from the ryokan and heading for the station to get the train back to Okayama.


Korakuen Korakuen, in Okayama. Okayama Castle is in the centre background.

Okayama was a merely passing through stop. The main thing to see there is the Korakuen garden, which takes an hour and a half or so. It only took about twenty minutes to get to and from the park, so we had about that time to look around.

The garden is supposed to be one of the top three gardens in Japan, and is certainly one of the best I've visited. It's much better than Hama Rikyuu in Tokyo, for example, with more space, more varied landscape, and clever incorporation of the adjacent Okayama Castle. There are a number of artificial hills overlooking lakes, and one section contains rice paddies, which are associated with a ceremony performed in the garden.

Gardens are difficult to write about. It was beautiful, calming, and relaxing; a great place for strolling around and chatting. Beyond that, there isn't really much to say, and no way to capture the impression it made. It rained a little while we were sitting in a shelter overlooking the lake with its pine-clad islands and small tea house, and then the garden was closing and it was time for us to leave to get our train for the next stage of the journey.


That train took us over the Seto Grand Bridge (Ohashi) to Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago. We arrived in Takamatsu, where we were staying, about 9:30pm, so we didn't do much there on Saturday. Still, I'd already achieved one important thing: I'd got to the third of the islands. Only Hokkaido to go now.

Because it was dark when we arrived, it was Sunday morning before we were able to appreciate the view from our hotel room windows, over Ritusrin Kouen to the mountain behind it. This has to be one of the best hotel views I've had in Japan.

While Ritsurin Kouen was on the plan, it wasn't first. In the morning we headed to Kotohira to visit Konpira, a very famous shrine. The shrine is up a mountain and, in a decision which I imagine made sense to someone, dedicated to a god of the sea. You can see quite a long way from the mountain, but as far as I could tell, you can't see the sea.

Stairs at Konpira The final flight of stairs at Konpira. The main shrine is just visible at the top.

The god at Konpira is now a patron of travel, partly because of the relationship to the sea, and partly because of how you get to the shrine. You start in the town, and there's a street lined with souvenir shops. There's a flight of steps, and then another flight, and then some more, and then a few steps, then some steep ones. Eventually, after about 365 steps, you reach the main gate to the shrine.

Beyond that is a flight of stairs. Then another. Then it turns and the steps go up at a different angle. A bit later there's a flat area, which includes the Shoin. This was a reception hall for the daimyo, and it has famous wall paintings dating from the mid-Edo period. We went round this, and in addition to the paintings, which deserve their fame, the building and surrounding garden were elegant and charming.

After that, it was back to the stairs. The main shrine is 785 stairs up. There, it is possible to buy o-mamori. I bought another study charm, since after all that walking I was definitely doing to take something back with me. Next to the main shrine is a hall where people have hung paintings, photographs, and items in the hopes of safe travel. There are a lot of ships, a few aeroplanes, and one space rocket; Japan's astronaut hung a painting there before leaving.

The view from the main shrine is wonderful; there's a plain at the foot of the mountain, but other mountains (or large hills; they're rather on the borderline) curve round, creating a beautiful skyline. Apparently, if you climb another 573 steps you can get to the Okusha (Inner Shrine). I would have quite liked to, but there wasn't time if we were to get back to Takamatsu in time to see Ritsurin Kouen; it takes about an hour by train from Takamatsu to Kotohira.

On the way down, we went to see the Konpira Grand Playhouse, the oldest surviving Kabuki theatre in Japan, and one of the largest. Plays are only staged once per year, but we were able to look around, seeing the backstage areas and the mechanisms underneath as well as the main auditorium.

Ritsurin Kouen Hang in Ritsurin Kouen, with the mountain in the background.

Then back on a train (we saw a lot of trains over the weekend) and back to Takamatsu to see Ritsurin Kouen. This was another beautiful garden, making excellent use of 'borrowed landscape', in the case incorporating the mountain behind into the general effect. I'd be hard pushed to say which of Ritsurin Kouen and Korakuen was more beautiful. Again, we had an hour and a half to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere. The giant bonsai trees were particularly interesting. (Yes, giant bonsai. You use bonsai techniques to train the branches, but let the trees grow larger than a person.)

Islands Islands in the Seto Inland Sea, from the train.

The weather all weekend was great, and on Sunday there was a bit of a breeze, which made walking around the garden even more pleasant. The lotus were in bloom, the turtles and carp fought over the food dropped in by visitors, and the pines leaned out over the water.

We got back to Takamatsu station early enough to catch the train before the one I'd booked seats on, which was good because it gave us 37 minutes to change in Okayama, rather than 7. The trip across the bridge in daylight was great, because you get a marvellous view out over the Seto Inland Sea, which is studded with islands. I got the impression that this was the normal commuter route for some of the passengers. I wouldn't mind a commute like that.

Back Home

The trains home were fine, and we were back by about nine. Overall, it was an excellent weekend. The places were well worth visiting, the scenery on Shikoku was spectacular, and it was really nice to have extended opportunities to talk to Hang. As usual, the trip left me working out where I can go next.