David Chart's Japan Diary

August 19th 2006

My apologies for the lateness of this entry. We've been on holiday. As I am sure I have mentioned before, O-Bon is the traditional Japanese summer holiday, taken in August. Its origins are a bit obscure, but it is now basically a Buddhist festival at which a family's dead ancestors visit the family home. (One of the reasons its origins are obscure is that, according to Buddhism, your dead ancestors shouldn't still be hanging around. That's a much more Shinto belief. As ever in the land of hereditary Buddhist warrior monks, religious matters are not simple.) In order to properly welcome the dead ancestors, all living members of the family are supposed to gather at the main family home. In the past, this was well-defined, both in terms of which family a given person belonged to, and in terms of which place was the main family home. With changes to society, O-Bon has really become a time for families to get together, and visit the family graves.

Taira Bon Festival Taira Bon Festival, from the upper level of the park. The Bon Dance happens around the tower, under the lines of paper lanterns, but I think they were taking a break at this point.

As a major festival, it has associated activities. One is the Bon Dance, a very simple dance performed by most members of the community, which varies from place to place. This dance happens at the Bon Festival for an area, and the dates vary somewhat from place to place. The Taira Bon Festival was a couple of weeks ago, on two evenings, and Yuriko and I went along on the second.

Japanese festivals are rather different from anything we have in Britain. They are possibly closest to school summer fairs, except that they don't raise money for anything; instead, local firms and families sponsor the festival. They have elements of carnivals, as well, and the Bon Dance is probably closest to Morris Dancing. But, over all, they are just a bit different. Yuriko said that the Taira Bon Festival was very familiar, much like the festivals from when she was a child. The food and many of the activities are fairly standard, and fortunately Yuriko like

We wandered around a bit, but didn't really do anything. There were a lot of children in yukata, but fewer adults. There were a few, but the proportion was reversed, it seemed. Yuriko had some jobs to do during the day, so she didn't get back early enough for us to change into our yukatas, which meant that we contributed to the dominance of western-style clothes. We did buy some okonomiyaki and fried chicken to eat, and chatted a bit to the man running a stall where children could catch small fish with their hands; it seemed to be quite popular.

That was followed by more work, which is generally going OK. I still need to recruit one or two more students, but some more writing work has just come in, so I have plenty to be getting on with. We also had another wedding preparation meeting, where a lot of things were decided. We also got to see the current quote. So, moving swiftly on to more pleasant topics...

We went to stay with Yuriko's parents for five days (Saturday to Wednesday). Normally, this involves getting the Tokaido Shinkansen to Nagoya. However, both Yuriko and I have done the Tokyo-Nagoya shinkansen run innumerable times, so we're both a bit sick of it. This time, we decided to take the Chuo Honsen instead. If we start at her parents' country home, that makes sense, as the stop for there is before Nagoya. It also meant that we could stop en route to visit one of Yuriko's friends from England.

Yuriko and me at Takeda Shrine Yuriko and me at Takeda Shrine.

We got to Koufu, where we were meeting Yuriko's friend, without any trouble. The friend is now married, and her and her husband took us out for lunch, along with their baby daughter, who was extremely cute. We had a very nice lunch, although Yuriko and her friend did most of the talking, catching up on what they had been doing since England. After lunch, we went to one of the tourist spots: Takeda Shrine.

Takeda Shrine is, apparently, in the grounds of the old castle, as the stone walls that would have served as its foundation still stand, next to the moat. The kami enshrined there is Takeda Shingen, a famous daimyo from the Sengoku period, but the shrine appears to be particularly known for the protection of children, and hatsumiyamairi (the Japanese equivalent of christening). I'm sure that there's a reason for that, but I have no idea what it is. I have read a bit about Takeda Shingen, and I don't remember anything that would suggest a particular link with children.

Onward progress from Koufu was a little more difficult. There had been serious thunderstorms and heavy rain over lunch, which had shut the Tokaido line down completely and caused serious delays on the Chuo Honsen. We had bookings for the super expresses, but the only trains running were local trains. After a bit of consultation, we decided to cancel the super express bookings, and caught a local train from Koufu to the next change, at Shiojiri (Salt Bottom).

This did take quite a lot longer than the express would have, but on the other hand we had more time to enjoy the scenery. The view from the Chuo line is definitely better than the view from the Tokaido line, as the Chuo line goes right through the mountains in the heart of Japan. (This also means that there are more tunnels, and the view from the tunnels is, I grant, not so great.) The mountains are all green, and while we were passing through thick low cloud made their peaks look like islands in the sky.

We changed trains at Shiojiri, and this time we did get a special express. As a result, we were less than two hours late getting to Ena, which is the nearest large station to Yuriko's parents' house. Her brother and father met us at the station (well, came after we called them to say we'd arrived), and drove us through the pitch dark to the house.

I've been there before; the picture of mountains and clouds at the top of the page was taken near the house. It's a very rural, very pretty village, and Yuriko and I did find time for a short walk around the area on Monday. However, most of the time we were off to other places.

Magome Yuriko and me at Magome, discussing the merits of a sun umbrella.

On the Sunday, we went to a few tourist spots. The first was Magome, an old post town on the Nakasendo, one of the old main roads from Tokyo to Kyoto. Magome stretches up a hill, along the old road, and is a nice place to visit. It has, quite clearly, been developed as a tourist attraction, with a very clean, stone-paved road, a couple of water wheels, and lots of souvenir shops and cafes. Given that, though, it is still pleasant, and the views over the surrounding mountains are spectacular.

The weather was quite hot, so one of the first things we did there was buy bottles of ramune. Ramune is a traditional Japanese summer drink, rather like lemonade. It comes in glass bottles, which are sealed shut by a glass bead. To drink it, you knock the bead into the bottle, and then drink directly from the bottle, while the bead rattles around. I think that, a few decades ago, this was the standard way to seal bottles, but now only ramune comes like that. It's also tasty, which is a plus.

It was still hot, so as well as looking at an umbrella, which we didn't buy, Yuriko's father bought me a hat. Unfortunately, I don't seem to have any pictures of me wearing the hat. What a pity.

From Magome, we drove to Tsumago, another post town. You can walk the old Nakasendo highway between them, a distance of about 8km. I would have liked to, but it was a bit too hot, and no-one else was enthusiastic, so I've put that off for another visit. Instead, we drove. Driving, it was a lot more than 8km, along winding roads to cope with the steep slopes.

Tsumago has a very different atmosphere from Magome. For a start, a lot of the buildings in Tsumago are Edo period, which means that they are over 150 years old. Quite a few of the buildings are important cultural properties (the Japanese equivalent of listed buildings), and the whole road feels like the set for a period drama. It probably gets used as such, as well. The ground is flatter, and the whole town feels more real.

At Tsumago, we ate hand-made ice candy, another Japanese traditional summer thing. Ice candy is pretty much the same as an ice lolly, but the shape (it's cylindrical) and the composition seem to be slightly different. We walked most of the length of Tsumago, enjoying the buildings, before heading back to the car.

The next stop was an onsen, because Yuriko really wanted to visit one. There were four of us: Yuriko, me, her father, and her brother. That meant that she went into the onsen alone (no problem for her), and I got to get naked with my in-laws. Another very Japanese experience. I don't think I'll turn into a big fan of onsens, but I have to admit that they are very relaxing.

After the onsen we went back to the house, via a supermarket (which Yuriko also really wanted to visit) because another of Yuriko's friends, plus baby, was coming round for dinner. The baby was not initially pleased to see us at all. Indeed, every time she looked at me, she burst out crying. After a little while playing in the next room, she seemed to calm down, and even smiled at me. I suppose that all the strange people just took a bit of getting used to. Once she was accustomed to us, she came back and ate enthusiastically. She has, apparently, not quite grasped the idea that there is a limit to how much she can fit in her mouth, or that you are only supposed to eat the red bit of watermelons. Still, she was very cute, and dinner was fun.

The next day it was time to visit more of Yuriko's relatives. First, we went to see the live ones. This was Yuriko's uncle and aunt, who still live in the house where Yuriko's father grew up. This is another house in a very rural area, with a view over a large river flowing through a steep valley. When Yuriko went there as a child, there was no road passable to cars to the house; you had to park some way away and walk over. There's a road now, though. Progress reaches everywhere.

Yuriko's aunt prepared us some very nice food, while protesting that it was nothing. After she had been assured that I like almost all Japanese food, she said that we should go back for a proper meal the next time, and sent us away with a huge bag of rice from their paddy field and onions from their crop. We didn't really do a lot more than say hello, but then it's hard to get beyond that at a first meeting. That was the main point, of course; to introduce me to some more of the family, in particular before they all come to the wedding.

After that, we went to say hello to the dead relatives. This was, of course, my first time to formally visit Japanese graves; last O-Bon I didn't have any Japanese relatives (and I was in England anyway). The Japanese do put flowers in front of graves. They also pour water over the top of the stone, and leave food offerings. A lot of the differences come from the fact that the Japanese traditionally worship their ancestors in a way that westerners do not. There were quite a lot of Yamamoto graves in the graveyard, and Yuriko's father explained their relationships to us, as far as he could remember.

Kawai Jinja Looking down the steps at Kawai Jinja, from about half way down.

There was a shrine (Kawai Jinja) right next to the graveyard, so we went to have a look at that. Yuriko's father remembers going to festivals there when he was younger, particularly the harvest festival. The shrine also still had a stone marking the direction of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. During the Second World War, people used to worship the emperor while facing the palace, so the stone was to tell them which way to look. Yuriko's father remembers that, as well. I would guess that most shrines had those stones originally, but it's the first time I've seen one still in place.

We had entered the shrine through a new rear entrance, added when a metalled road was put in up to the graveyard. Yuriko and I decided to leave through the front entrance, and her father agreed to take the car round. So, we went through the inner torii, and started down the steps.

424 steps later, we left through the outer torii. The shrine is quite a long way up a very steep slope, and I can't imagine that the local residents went there very often when the only access was up the stairs. On the other hand, visiting the shrine every day would be enough to keep you in excellent shape even if you had no other exercise. The slope is roughly S-shaped, which means that the central portion of the stairway is very steep indeed; cling-on-to-the-rail steep, in fact. You would not want to trip and fall anywhere near the top of the steps.

Family and Waterwheel Me with Yuriko's family, with the giant waterwheel in the background.

On Monday evening we headed back to Nagoya, because Yuriko's brother had to be back in Nagoya on Tuesday morning. On the way, we stopped off at a dam, which has the largest waterwheel in Japan. It really is quite big. Apparently, there was a water wheel in one of the villages flooded by the dam, so they built a really big one as a reminder. That's also a very Japanese thing to do.

As further proof, a little further along the route we stopped to look at the largest pottery Shrine Dogs in Japan. Almost all shrines have two of these, called koma-inu, standing either side of the shrine, one with its mouth open and the other with its mouth closed. These two really were very big, so big that they had been fired in place and then the kiln partially deconstructed around them so that they would be visible.

The western concentration on things like Zen ink art, or the small gardens inside a house, neglects another important trend in Japanese aesthetics. This is the trend to build the biggest whatever in the world. Then gild it. If you know about this tendency, modern Japan makes a lot more sense, because it is still strong in the Japanese character. It goes back well over a thousand years, to the Nara Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world, in the largest wooden structure in the world. In fact, it goes back further than that; the fifth century burial mound for Emperor Nintoku is 486m long, larger than the Pyramid of Cheops. Of course, the small, subtle things still exist and are still popular, but they aren't as immediately visible as, say, the giant plastic banana by the side of the road.

Anyway, we got back to Nagoya, which was hotter; the country house is up in mountains, which makes it cool in summer. Yuriko's mother prepared a delicious meal, and we chatted for a while about various things.

Yuriko bowling Yuriko bowling.

On Tuesday, after Yuriko's brother was back, we went to do some of the things her family traditionally does when they get together. First, we went bowling.

This is, of course, the American variety, inside with pins and lanes, rather than the British variety. It was, as far as I know, the first time I had ever been. As might be expected, my first attempt resulted in the ball falling into the gutter at the side of the lane, and completely missing all the pins.

Fortunately, my second ball hit the central pin square-on, and knocked them all down for a strike.

I was playing against Yuriko in one lane, while the rest of her family played in the adjacent lane. Over three games, I managed to beat Yuriko, and if we count over the first two games, I beat everyone. It is nice to discover a physical sport at which I do not naturally suck. (My average was 96, which I'm sure isn't very good, really.)

After bowling, we went to karaoke, which was conveniently in the same building. Karaoke was a bit more familiar, although when we tried to sing one of Yuriko's choices it merely reinforced the importance of only choosing songs you know well... We managed through the first bit, and then got completely lost.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable afternoon. I don't think I'd rush to either bowling or karaoke every week, and I still think I prefer karaoke, but they are definitely both fun.

Wednesday we were coming home, but we made a slight detour to Okazaki so that we could pop into Yamasa and say hello to some of the people I know. It's over a year since I've been back there, and it was really nice to see the place again. It's a bit like my Japanese hometown, although the roads from the railway station are completely different from when I was there. At the school, most of the office staff were still there, but most of the teachers I knew have left. I did manage to say hello to four: Nakane-sensei, Kuroda-sensei, Kurita-sensei, and Fuma-sensei. We spent quite a while chatting to Declan Murphy, who runs the International Office, before heading off to get the Tokaido Shinkansen home. (It was getting dark, so the familiar view didn't matter.)

The journey home was uneventful, which was a good thing. Since then, we've both been catching up on the work that mounted up while we were away. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to have been too much of it, and I think I'm now on top of things.