David Chart's Japan Diary

May 22nd 2005


I've been thinking about doing a redesign of my web pages, with some images, for quite a long time, and on Friday night I finally did it. I have no real idea why I suddenly wanted to get it done on Friday; that's just one of those things.

So, this is the new look for the Japan Diary pages. Other pages may get a similar look over the next few weeks, if I can think of suitable images to use. My travels round Japan have, of course, provided me with a good selection of images for these pages. Speaking of which, the images used here are as follows.

In the top banner, from left to right, we have: clouds in the mountains around Agi, Gifu Prefecture; a painting of a dragon on a sliding screen at Ryouanji in Kyoto (the temple with the very famous Zen rock garden; the screen painting is in the hall overlooking that garden); Mount Fuji at sunset, taken from the bullet train; Himeji Castle; and Hama Rikyuu garden in Tokyo, with skyscrapers in the background. The pictures appear without words over them on the diary index page.

The pictures to the left are, from top to bottom: the Great Buddha at Kamakura; snow on a pine tree in the park near where I lived in Okazaki; the entrance to an Inari shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo; Kegon Falls, near Nikko; the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima; and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

The page background is a picture of cherry blossoms, taken by the Nomi river in Ota-ku, Tokyo, and then faded in the GIMP to make a background that doesn't render the text illegible.

The redesign took about five hours in total. Sorting out the images was a fairly small part of that; fixing the HTML and CSS code to make the page look how I wanted took ages. The effect, however, should be that the text wraps to the width of the top image or of your browser window, whichever is narrower, and the left-hand banner goes all the way to the bottom of the page. That should make the layout fairly independent of your screen size. It does rely heavily on CSS, but these days your browser has to be ancient for that not to work.

Anyway, now that I've done the basic work of the redesign, extending it to other pages is a relatively simple matter of picking appropriate images and stitching them together into banners. I'm not planning to convert all the previous diary entries to the new look; it requires a bit of editing to every file. However, future ones will all look like this, and other parts of my website may also get a facelift.

I hope you like it.

Haircuts and Shrines

I've had my hair cut again. There's a chain of barbers in Japan called QD House, who advertise cheap rates (1000 yen), and fast service (10 minutes). So, as I was passing, I thought I'd give them a try. The service is pretty much as advertised, but obviously they don't wash your hair. That's not possible in the time frame. Instead, once they've finished, they vacuum your head to get all the floaty bits of hair. This was the first time I'd had my head vacuumed. Anyway, my hair is now short again, and Yuriko says she likes it like this, so I might have to get it cut more often. At 1000 yen a time, I can actually afford that, too.

I got the haircut on Friday, in Shibuya, but that wasn't why I went out. I had a few bits of necessary business, including visiting the bank, buying a book necessary for one of current writing projects, and doing some other shopping. While I was in Shibuya, I took a short detour to visit a couple of shrines.

As people may have noticed, I quite like Shinto shrines. On the whole, I prefer them to temples, too. One of the shrines I went to was a location used several times in Sailor Moon, but the other (Kon-no Shrine) was more interesting. It also seemed to be quite busy, relatively speaking; a couple of people actually payed their respects to the kami while I was there. It may be that it's convenient for a lot of people in Shibuya. Across the road was an Inari shrine, and it's the entrance to that shrine that appears in the side banner to the left.

An Inari Shrine The main building at the Inari shrine in Shibuya. You can see the fox statues, one to either side.

Inari is one of the most prevalent Shinto deities. He was originally an agricultural deity, responsibly for the success of the rice crop, which probably has a lot to do with the success of his cult. These days, he is held to be particularly good at providing material success in general, and thus the shrines are popular even in non-agricultural areas, like Tokyo. In fact, a lot of shrines to other deities have an Inari shrine on the grounds; Kon-no Shrine, for example, does.

The avenue of torii at an Inari shrine The path of torii at the same Inari Shrine. You can also see this in the image in the sidebar at the left of the page.

Inari shrines have two obvious distinctive features. One is the statues of foxes that flank the shrine building. These statues almost always wear red fabric bibs, and occasionally there are rather more than two. I'm not precisely sure why the fox is associated with Inari, but the association is strong.

The second feature is that most Inari shrines have lots of red torii, almost forming a tunnel leading to the shrine building. Paying for one of these torii is, I believe, a fairly major way of praying for, or expressing gratitude for, worldly success. There are more Inari shrines than shrines to any other Shinto deity, although I think that must include the ones on the grounds of other shrines; I've not noticed many independent Inari shrines.

The other popular deities (Hachiman, Tenjin, and so on) don't seem to have such obvious distinguishing marks. Obviously, if you can read Japanese it's pretty easy to tell, as the name of the deity is normally carved in enormous kanji on a stone at the entrance to the shrine, but apart from that the shrines seem to look much the same. Maybe there are subtle differences I'll become aware of over time. Kon-no shrine, incidentally, is a Hachiman shrine. Those are the second most common, and generally do seem to be independent. However, it seems to be very common for a Hachiman shrine to include an Inari shrine within the precincts.

Real Estate Purchases

Yesterday's main task was buying a flat.

I hope.

I'm not going to say too much about the flat, because there are still some stages to go through before the sale actually happens, so I might not get it in the end. However, yesterday we signed contracts and I handed over the first bit of money, so things are moving along.

This was an interesting experience, as you might imagine. It's the first time I've bought real estate. Doing so in Japanese was merely an added bonus.

Japanese law requires the estate agents to explain all the contracts to you. This involves reading the entire contract, and supplementary information, out, and explaining the technical terms. Even Japanese people don't generally know the terms before they buy a property. (Yuriko went with me, and confirmed this.) As you might expect, this takes some time.

Slightly unexpectedly, I did understand the explanations. Part of this, I think, is because contracts are much the same the world over. There are certain things that they have to say, and once you know that, for example, a clause is the 'this contract is the whole agreement' clause, it's easier to work out how the grammar all hangs together.

It was interesting, but I have no idea how it differed from the English experience. I don't, for example, know whether you have to be told that permission is required from the civic authorities for large earth-moving works before buying a fourth-floor flat in England, or whether that's just a Japanese thing. (I don't think that's going to deeply concern me.)

This being Japan, I handed the money over in cash. In total, I was handing over 1,400,000 yen. (About $15,000 or £7000.) I've never handled such a large sheaf of high-value bills before. Even more remarkably, I got it all out of the ATMs in convenience stores. (One of my jobs on Friday was checking with my bank that I really could do that.)

The daily limit on ATM withdrawals on UK bank accounts is typically around £200. I don't know if US ones are the same. However, the limit on Japanese accounts is typically around 2,000,000 yen. Writing your PIN number on your card is a really, really bad idea here. But then, Japan is still a cash-based society to an amazing extent; most shops don't even blink if you pay with a 10,000 yen note, no matter how small the purchase.

I also discovered the advantage of a hanko, the personal seal. There were a lot of documents to sign in triplicate, and stamping the seal on each page was less hassle than signing my name.

All told, it took about three and a half hours for the whole process. I can see why some people don't read contracts before they sign them; if you don't read very fluently, it takes a really, really long time, and even then you might not understand. Maybe I'll get to the point of being able to read a Japanese contract quickly some day, but certainly not yet.

The estate agent says we can expect the next stage to take some time, so I still have no idea when, or even if, I'll be moving next. However, the next move should be the last for a while.