David Chart's Japan Diary

August 15th 2004

This weekend was O-Bon, the Japanese festival of the dead. At O-Bon, your ancestors all come back to their hometown, so you have to go back there too, to decorate the graves and make sure that they are satisfied with their treatment, so that immediately after O-Bon they will all go back where they came from. It's a holiday, in the middle of summer, so people really do tend to go back to their hometowns. Tokyo, apparently, is pretty much a ghost town during O-Bon. Well, a bit emptier than usual, anyway.

We had two days off school to mark the occasion, so the weekend started on Thursday. The first three days of the week were normal school, and the main noteworthy event was that Sheila finished proofreading the draft for Ars Magica, so I was able to finally send it to Atlas. Ideally, that would have meant that I was completely finished with the project. In the real world we live in, of course, there are still things that need doing, and general line editing for Ars Magica continues, but the big revision project is now a weight off my mind, and on someone else's.

I didn't go back to my hometown -- my living ancestors have all left it, so I can't see why the dead ones would go there, and anyway it's a long way away -- but I did travel a bit. Thursday was eaten up by reading and Ars Magica admin, but on Friday I actually had a bit of holiday.

Okazaki Rice paddies and scarecrows, half an hour's walk from my flat.

I decided to go for a walk in Okazaki, because Okazaki is huge, over 200 square kilometers, and I've only seen a tiny fraction of it. I went out of the flat, and turned the opposite direction from school. This wasn't a completely random walk, as I do have a map that shows the whole of Okazaki, and it proved to be quite interesting. Within about twenty minutes, I was in genuine countryside, with rice paddies up to the forests on the hills. A bit of walking by a river (between concrete walls, like nearly all rivers here), and I came to a temple. I think it's Choufuku or Nagafuku, but I've only seen the kanji, and I don't know how they should be read.

I was the only person there, so I got to wander round freely. It's true that it's not an amazing temple like, say, Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, but it was certainly on the scale of an interesting parish church in England. That is, it isn't worth making a trip to Okazaki to see, and isn't the first thing you go to there if you have limited time, but it is worth visiting if you have lots of time in the area.

I'm now planning to fit similar trips into my schedule when I have time, which means on weekends when I'm not going anywhere else. If I stay in Japan, I'll probably stay in Okazaki, at least to start with, so getting to know the city a bit seems like a good idea.

The walk took a bit longer than I anticipated, largely due to the temple, and the sun was bright. When I got back, I had an English lesson, so I was teaching for an hour. Soon after that, I went to bed with a headache, and slept for about three hours. I think I may have been out in the sun for a bit too long.


Yesterday and today I spent with Yuriko, her family, and a couple of her friends. Yuriko's parents have a house in Agi, a village in Gifu-ken (Gifu county, roughly), which is up in the mountains. The plan was to stay there overnight, and generally take it easy. I got there easily enough, with a stop in Nagoya to buy a gift for the family (biscuits, so I got to eat part of my gift). Yuriko, her brother Koji, and her friend Kaori met me at the railway station in Ena, and the first thing we did was go to the Hiroshige museum in Ena.

Hiroshige is one of the two most famous ukiyo-e (woodblock) artists, the other one being Hokusai. Hokusai did that print of the big wave curling over, and Hiroshige did the one of people on a bridge in the rain. (If you've seen them, you'll know the ones I mean.) The museum apparently has prints of nearly everything he did, and has rotating exhibitions. The two series on (partial) display this weekend were a series of fish, and a series of regional specialties; a food book, and a travel book. Japanese tastes in literature don't seem to have changed much in two centuries.

We were very lucky, in that we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we got an explanation of and background on the prints. I even understood most of what was said, so I must be getting better; museum explanations are quite hard to follow. Upstairs, there was an explanatory exhibition on the process, and you could make your own three-colour prints. I did one extremely badly, and one quite well. It's just as well I'm not planning to switch into that as a career.

The museum was very good, and we spent rather longer there than we originally planned. Thus, we had to rush a bit to do some necessary shopping before driving to Yuriko's country residence.

This house is really out in the countryside. The next-door neighbour is a few minutes' walk away, and it's surrounded by paddy fields terraced into the slopes of the mountains. The house itself is very traditional Japanese, with tatami matting throughout, sliding doors instead of walls, and a corridor between the tatami rooms and the external wall. The water comes from a well, not the piped supply. It's so traditional that the toilet is outside and doesn't flush (no mains water, remember). Oh, and there's no air conditioning.

Eating at the barbecue Dinner at the barbecue. From left to right, Yuriko's mother, Yuriko's father, Kaori, Yuriko, Koji, and Yuri. I'm behind the camera.

Nevertheless, it was very pleasant staying there. The weather cooled off a bit Saturday evening, so the lack of air conditioning wasn't too bad, and I coped with the other inconveniences. Yuriko's friend Yuriko (henceforward Yuri, to avoid confusion) was also there on Saturday, and we had a barbecue in the back garden. Terribly Japanese. The back garden is extremely private, because it abuts a terraced paddy field, so there are effectively walls on all sides.

The food at the barbecue was great, and the weather was just about perfect; not too hot, but no rain and no strong winds. After eating, we went to see some fireworks in another town. I forget which one; I wasn't navigating, because the car had a GPS navigation system. (We still got slightly lost on the way back, though, when we tried to dodge a traffic jam.) The fireworks were good, and there were several that exploded to produce a smiley face. Unfortunately, I didn't quite get the timing right on any of those, so I don't have any pictures.

Yuri had to go home on Saturday, so after bringing us back from the fireworks she left. That meant that we all had a room to ourselves. We took turns having a bath, with water heated by sunlight in the heater on the roof, and then we went to bed.

Yuriko in the country Yuriko, with the scenery of Gifu in the background.

This morning, I wasn't entirely sure when to get up. To get out of my room, I had to either go through Kaori's room, or through both Koji's and Yuriko's. Fortunately, you can hear well through sliding panels, so I was able to make a reasonable guess when it would be alright to surface, and I basically got it right.

Clouds on the mountains Clouds doing their best to be picturesque.

I went for a walk round the area, and while I was taking photographs at the local shrine Yuriko and Kaori caught up with me, so I walked with them a bit. Then Kaori decided she wanted to walk in the opposite direction to us, because she thought it looked prettier, so I finished the walk with just Yuriko. The scenery was truly spectacular, helped by low cloud which sat very prettily on some of the higher mountains. The feel of rural areas in Japan is completely different from the feel of rural England; paddy fields impose a wholly different logic, particularly on sloping ground, and in the countryside the architectural style is strongly Japanese. Apparently, Yuriko's parents plan to live in the village full time once they start feeling old, and want the peace and quiet. It's certainly a lovely area for that, although I suspect they'll want to do a bit more work on the house (indoor toilet, air conditioner) before then. Cleaning my teeth outside was fine in summer, but I wouldn't want to do it winter.

After the walk we had brunch outside, and that was very nice too. The miso soup was particularly good, and had aubergines, from the garden, in it. (OK pedants, slices of aubergine.) After brunch, we left to see some places, and Kaori and I didn't go back to the house.

The first place we went was a cattle farm on top of a hill. This is basically a tourist attraction, as far as I could see, but the views were spectacular and the soft ice cream was very tasty. The view was over a reservoir, and rather reminiscent of the lake district; the mountains in that part of Gifu look about that high, although they are mostly forested. I think being in a pastoral bit helped the impression; there was clover in the grass.

Rocks at the lake The shores of the lake, with rocks atop the cliffs.

From there, we drove back down the really pretty view, and went for a boat ride on the lake. The stone of the surrounding hills appears to be of a variety that naturally fractures into rocks, and these are the main attraction of the boat trip. The formations are quite spectacular, and the view across the lake is really beautiful at several points. The small motorboat we were in was largely open on the sides, with a roof, so we got quite a breeze. Not as much as the people on jet skis, though -- some of them seemed to have inexperienced passengers, so that may be another option for seeing the lake.

The final stop was my first visit to an onsen. For the first time, there was a Japanese man along (Koji) who could provide the necessary moral support. As I am sure you are all aware, Japanese onsen are public, and you go in completely naked. This means that none of my English-based common sense applies (first thing supplied by said common sense: wear swimming trunks), so I wanted a Japanese person along the first time to stop me committing any horrendous social faux-pas. And, of course, most (although not all) onsen are separated for men and women, so female friends are no use here.

Actually, it was easier than it might have been, because all the main differences can, it seems, be summarised in instructions. Once you know that you undress in the outer area, wash before getting into the baths, and that you're kind of expected to hold your small towel in front of your genitals but that people often don't bother, it's quite easy. The only other odd thing is that your towel is supposed to get wet, and you can spot that quite easily.

Once the cultural differences were assimilated, it was very pleasant. The water wasn't uncomfortably hot, as I had feared it might be, although I wouldn't have minded had the weather been slightly cooler. Then, I think the rotenburo (outside bath) would have been extremely pleasant. There were several different baths, most inside, but all with great views through the large windows, and a sort of shower massage place. The full age range was represented, from literal babies to old men, and there was even one girl. (I would guess about four years old; according to Yuriko, boys that age and younger are fairly common on the women's side, but men taking their children to the onsen without their wives are, it seems, still rarer than women doing it without their husbands. Why does this not surprise me?)

Anyway, now that I've done it once, I'll definitely be doing it again. It's very relaxing, more so than the Japanese baths in hotels or ryokans, for the simple reason that I actually fit into the baths at an onsen. (No photographs of the onsen. Obviously...)

Then I got the train home, cooked dinner, and wrote this diary entry. School again tomorrow.