David Chart's Japan Diary

March 7th 2006

Work did pick up and go well after my last diary entry. In fact, I managed to submit the draft last Monday, the day before the deadline. The editor got back to me today, and while I have to make a few fairly small changes to fit in better with the line as a whole, they like the overall shape of the draft. The changes shouldn't take me too long, so I'm hoping to turn another draft over to them by the end of the week. If I don't manage that, I should manage next week. Of course, the fact that I had about 180 emails to read and deal with today did not help with getting on with that; this is what happens when I take a weekend off.

After all, as I had finished writing, I could actually afford to take some time off. Last week I still had to work; teaching and editing didn't stop. However, I kept the level of work down a bit, to try to get a bit of a break, and I took Sunday and Monday off completely. That meant that I was able to spend some time with Yuriko; it's been a while since we've been able to take a whole day as we did on Sunday.

Cake and Dolls The Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) cake and flowers. You can just see the little dolls in with the flowers, to the left of the plant.

As it turned out, this week has involved a lot of Japanese festivals. Friday, the 3rd, was Girls' Day, or the doll festival. Traditional families have elaborate sets of traditional dolls, which belong to one of the daughters and are brought out on this day. The dolls represent a Heian period emperor, empress, and court, and are set up on a series of stepped shelves. The emperor and empress, naturally, go on the top, and various other dolls are displayed below them. The full sets of dolls are quite expensive, and are traditionally heirlooms; a grandmother passes them on to her daughter's eldest daughter. Thus, as Yuriko's family are neither particularly rich nor particularly traditional, she doesn't have a set. In many ways, that's a good thing, because we don't have anywhere to put them...

Although we don't have a traditional set, we did want to mark the day, so Yuriko bought a plant with a little emperor and empress pair, and, on the day, a cake with the emperor and empress sitting on top. The cake was very nice. We should probably do something for Easter, to balance the cultures, but I'll have to check on the date.

Traditionally, the dolls are displayed from a week or more before the 3rd, and put away on that day. If they are not put away, it is supposed to indicate that the girl who owns the dolls will never become a empress; that is, that she will never get married. Yuriko did, apparently, put up some little Girls' Day decorations, and then forget to take them down. So much for that superstition.

The snake on the torii The face of the straw snake. I think he's quite friendly looking.

On Saturday a couple of my students cancelled, so I had some unexpected free time. Yuriko was going to the gym, so we walked over in that direction together, and popped in to the local shrine. This was because I knew that one of their festivals was around now, but not exactly when; it is held on the first Rabbit Day of March, and I don't know when the Chinese Zodiac days fall. As it turns out, the festival was on Friday, so we missed it, but we did get to see the after-effects; a large straw snake tied to the torii at the top of the steps. The snake has vegetables for its face, including a carrot for its tongue, and is part of a festival praying for a good harvest, a reminder that this was an agricultural area until not that long ago. The snake is made by a different group every year, and talking to the people at the shrine we learned that this year's is particularly healthy-looking. Indeed, I have to duck slightly to get through the torii without getting scratched by the straw.

The festival itself, as well as the dedication of the snake, involves making two bows and arrows from local material. They are then supposed to be fired at a target by two boys from the area; eldest sons, under five years old. Presumably, the result is a kind of fortune-telling for the harvest. We missed that bit this year, although we were shown some photographs. Maybe next year...

Incidentally, I have no idea why a snake.

On Sunday, we went out for the whole day. The weather was beautiful; clear sky, warm, nice breeze. Definitely spring, at last. The first place we went to was Yushima Shrine, where they were having a festival for the plum blossoms. Most of the trees were in full bloom, and it was absolutely packed. We went there last year, as well, and I talked about the festival then.

From there, we went to an historic house nearby. It's one of the former residences of the Iwasaki family, one of the two families who founded Mitsubishi. The building is famous because it is half western and half Japanese. The family, apparently, lived in the western part, and kept the Japanese part for ceremonial occasions. The guidebook says that the building integrates the two architectural styles. Actually, the two buildings are just stuck together; from the upstairs balcony of the western part you can see the line where the roof style changes, and it looks rather odd. Still, it was built very early in the adoption of western styles in Japan.

A unique feature of the house is a wooden billiard house, connected to the house by an underground passage. There has to be a story behind that. I mean, billiards isn't exactly a noisy game, in itself, and underground passages are not the sort of thing you just do for the sake of it. Maybe Iwasaki's wife refused to have a billiard table in the house.

Next, we walked to Ueno park, and round Shinobazu pond. I've been there lots of times, because it's very near Sawanoya, where I used to stay when I came to Tokyo. Yuriko had never been there, however. When she goes to the museums in Ueno park, she just gets straight off the train and goes to the museum, and then goes back. So, I could play tour guide, which was nice, if a bit odd.

Yesterday was a proper day off, and today I'm back to working, as well as writing this diary. I got my emails down from 180 to 12 today, but most of the 12 have drafts of chapters attached, so they'll take a while to read. But that's for tomorrow; I have to get ready for tonight's student now.