David Chart's Japan Diary

November 22nd 2004

Last week was slightly more interested than the previous one, so I should be able to manage a slightly longer diary entry without boring my readers to tears.

Last Thursday we had a mock exam for Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Level 1 is the highest level, and if you've passed that just about any university will accept you as far as Japanese proficiency is concerned. Today, we got the results back, and I passed. I got 75%, and the pass mark is 70%, so it's a completely ordinary pass; not good, not by-the-skin-of-my-teeth.

Given that I'm really only taking the exam as a measure of my ability, there isn't a great deal of real point in taking the real one now; I've passed it under full exam conditions already. I still will, of course, since I'm likely to pass again, and the certificate might be useful at some point. I would, however, like to say that rumours that passing this exam makes you fluent in Japanese are grossly exaggerated. Well, significantly exaggerated, at least.

So, it looks like school has gone well. Apart from the big test, the last week was fairly ordinary from that perspective.

There was also a big work-related event last week. Ars Magica Fifth Edition was published. The first customers have already received their copies, although I'm still waiting for my complimentary copy. (Tomorrow is a national holiday, so maybe Wednesday.) This is easily the largest single project I've worked on yet; we started on it over two years ago. It's been through five rounds of testing, so at least six rounds of revision, and it's going to be really, really good to finally see it in print. I'm very proud of the fact that the book was published on time. Not just the release date we announced, but the date we decided to aim for when we started the process, over two years back. I'm also extremely pleased with the way the book has turned out. I really like this version of the game, which is a good start, at least.

Of course, now I'm waiting with trepidation to see what the fans of earlier editions think of it. Early signs are good, but they're still very early signs.


Astute regular readers may have guessed, from the lack of a weekend update, that I was away this weekend. I went to Tokyo to see Yuriko, and it was a really good weekend. I stayed at Sawanoya again, since they had a vacancy this time, and it was as good as ever. These days I find I need the late key to get back in most nights, though. On Friday evening we met up for dinner in Shinjuku, at a Chinese/Korean fusion restaurant which served an enormous range of different kinds of gyouza, including choco-banana (which we didn't get round to trying).

Saturday was much more busy. One of Yuriko's housemates is learning the tea ceremony, and this weekend her school had an exhibition, for want of a better word. The students performed tea ceremonies, inviting their friends to come along. Youko, Yuriko's housemate, was doing her ceremony first thing in the morning, at twenty past ten, so that was where we started the day.

The Tea House The Tea House where the tea ceremony was held, from the other side of the pond.

The ceremony was held in a tea house behind the Tokyo National Museum. There are several historic tea houses there, moved from all over Japan, and the area around has been landscaped into an appropriate garden. The weather was beautiful, and as a result the setting was just about perfect. Most of the people living in Yuriko's house were there, so the tea room was fairly full. Youko's school practises a fairly simple form of the ceremony, which means it only took about half an hour. Still, every move made in making the tea has a prescribed form, and there are important guidelines on selecting the utensils and decorations for the room. Even knowing very little about it, it is fascinating, and I suspect that it's one of those things that becomes much more interesting once you know a bit.

This was the first time I'd attended a proper tea ceremony held in the appropriate surroundings, and apparently it was Yuriko's first time as well. It isn't, I gather, an opportunity that comes up that often.

We drifted out of the museum grounds extremely slowly, as tends to happen with substantial groups of people. Yuriko had made a lunch reservation for the two of us at a nice restaurant in Ueno park, and we got there just at the right time. The restaurant is near Shinobazu pond, and serves traditional Japanese food. We had the cheapest option, which came in a three boxes, stacked in the shape of a top. The food was good, and the atmosphere was very nice.

After lunch, we went to visit some museums. Yuriko wanted to visit the Shitamachi (old town) museum in Ueno park, and as I hadn't been yet I was happy to go along. This museum has reconstructed houses and shops, as well as a number of traditional toys and games that you can try. I did very well at the flag game, possibly because it requires absolutely no thought whatsoever.

The next stop was up in Yanaka, so there was quite a walk over to it. It turned out that Yuriko, despite having lived in Tokyo for 15 years, had never actually been to the Shinobazu pond end of Ueno park. I, of course, go there almost every time I go to Tokyo... Our ultimate goal was the Asakura Chousokan, which I've been to about four times now, and still really like. I still want to live in that house, and Yuriko also said that she was more impressed by the place than she had expected.

Joumyouin The serried ranks of Jizou images at Joumyouin.

On the way there, we popped into a temple recommended by one of Yuriko's friends, Joumyouin. This temple claims to have 84,000 images of Jizou, the guardian of children. At first, we were sceptical. Then we wandered round a bit, and realised just how many statues were lined up, and how far they stretched. I still doubt that there are 84,000, but there are literally thousands. There are a large number of 'standard issue' Jizou images, interspersed with a number of slightly different ones, which make the temple grounds interesting to wander around. Well worth a visit, particularly as it's free.

Lit-up Rikugien Yuriko in front of a lit-up tree at Rikugien.

From the museum we wandered around looking for somewhere to eat, and finally settled on an eel restaurant, which was very nice. By this time it was dark, and the next plan was to go to Rikugien, an old daimyo garden, which was lit up for the autumn leaves. The weather was great, but we were just a little bit early; most of the maples were still green. Nevertheless, it was very busy, and the lighting was effective. The most effective, I thought, was the illumination of the islands in the pond, but those photographs didn't come out well enough to be posted here.

On Sunday morning, Yuriko had a lie in, so I had time to go to the Kionkuniya bookshop in Shinjuku. I found a book that looks extremely interesting, too. It's a collection of 365 interesting events from Japanese history, one for every day of the year. There's one page per day, and each day's event happened on that day. (I think, from skimming, that there's also a list of half a dozen or so other events for each day.) I think this book would make good daily reading, so I'm seriously thinking about getting it before the New Year.

We met up at noon to go to a film. The film in question, 'Dutch Light', was a documentary about the 'unique light' found in the Dutch Old Masters, its possible causes, and whether it still existed. I followed most of it, but I wasn't able to think deeply about the various opinions expressed, as it was in Dutch with Japanese subtitles. I got a lot of very intense speed-reading practice...

After the film, we went for lunch to a conveyor-belt sushi place that Yuriko goes to a lot. The sushi was very good, although the location left something to be desired. It was quite full, even though we were having a late lunch and there's very little passing traffic. It obviously does well on its reputation. Then we chatted a bit before I headed off to get the Shinkansen back to Okazaki. This time, I found out that you can buy the necessary extra ticket for the 8:07 train from Toyohashi to Okazaki on the train, which is good; it makes the timing on the return journey pretty much perfect.

So, it was a very good weekend, with a lot of traditional Japanese experiences, and, as usual, I need sleep and time to catch up on things I couldn't do at the weekend. It's a good job it's a national holiday tomorrow.