David Chart's Japan Diary

April 27th 2007

April has been a very busy month. A large part of that was due to being asked, right at the end of March, if I could write 40,000 words, for a book set in a historical period I'm not deeply familiar with, by the end of the month. Actually, strictly speaking it's due to me saying "yes". As I have finished the writing, I was right, but I have had a rather hectic time. And it's not as if the rest of life was quiet, either. So, let's back up to the tenth or so and start from there.

Art Fair Tokyo Art Fair Tokyo, from the outside, because only the press are allowed to take photographs inside.

Yuriko works for the organising committee of Art Fair Tokyo, and the 2007 fair was held at the earlier this month. Obviously, that meant that Yuriko was really busy, and I had to take most of a day off to go to see the fair. It wasn't all compulsion, though, because I wanted to have a look around. Yuriko was also released from office duties for a while so that she could go around with me, and we discussed the art that I said I liked. She quickly got an idea of my taste, which isn't particularly contemporary. As I think that a lot of contemporary art fetishises originality, and still manages to be derivative, that's probably not surprising. Still, there were a number of living artists that I liked, and they weren't all doing pastiches of old masters. Actually, none of them were.

Yuriko's brother Koji also came to see the fair, and stayed overnight with us so that he could have a bit more time to look around Tokyo. His tastes in art are at least as traditional as mine, it appears.

Fortunately, Art Fair Tokyo seems to have been a great success. A few exhibiting galleries sold out at the preview, and the total art sales were something like triple the sales at the first one, in 2005. The number of visitors was about the same, which is actually an improvement as the last one was over a weekend, and this year's wasn't. (Next year's will be back to a weekend, I believe.) So, Yuriko was pleased, her boss was pleased, and next year's fair will be happening.

Immediately after the art fair, we went to the clinic again, and had a very short appointment. Yudetamago was dancing, and we could see that on the ultrasound, so I think it was fairly obvious that there were no serious problems. We did manage to get another 3D photo, but it wasn't easy; Yudetamago didn't want to hold still long enough.

Phil Chart Me, Phil, and Yuriko, at our flat.

The next event was a visit from Phil Chart, one of my American cousins. He was in Japan for a friend's wedding, and he took advantage of the JR Pass (which is a really great deal for tourists; long-term residents can't get it) to travel all over the country. This included an overnight stop in Kawasaki, and we took him to Bikkuri Sushi (our favourite local sushi shop), and talked about Japan. And talked, and talked, and talked. Phil actually said that he was missing conversation; he doesn't speak any Japanese, so he hadn't been able to chat much on his trips around the country. So I got just about all of it at once. It was fun to compare his impressions, talk about my opinions of Japan, and tell my amusing anecdotes again (and listen to his, of course). We both agree that Hiroshima is a really beautiful city.

Family Sushi Me, Yuriko, and her parents at Bikkuri Sushi.

Phil left us to visit Kyoto again, and I had a week of writing madly before Yuriko's parents came to stay. They had wanted to come to see Yuriko, to make sure that the pregnancy was going well. Or something; probably just parental worry, when you get right down to it. So, they came last Saturday, and we went to Bikkuri Sushi in the evening. Yuriko said it was quite a strange experience, because when we've gone there with guests, they've almost invariably been my guests, so we've been speaking English and I've had to do most of the ordering. It was a bit different being there with other people who could actually read the menu and knew what things they liked. Rather restful, really.

Incidentally, I'm wearing glasses in a lot of the photos because I need new contact lenses and haven't had time to go to the opticians. I can wear them occasionally, but not every day. I'm going to change to soft lenses again, as well. Hard lenses never stopped being irritating.

Back to Yuriko's parents' visit. The reason they came last weekend was that we were going to a special ceremony. It's the first of the Japanese/Shinto rites of passage, and happens while the mother is still pregnant. It's called the Chakutai Shiki, which means "putting on the belt ceremony".

The belt in question is one traditional worn by pregnant women in Japan to help support the weight of their stomach. Thus, the ceremony happens in the fifth month of pregnancy, when the mother's stomach starts getting bigger. It also happens on a fixed day: the day of the dog. This is because, so I am told, dogs give birth to lots of healthy puppies without any problems, and thus dogs are good omens for healthy and easy childbirth. (The animals of the Chinese zodiac apply to days as well as years.) Last Sunday was, as it happened, the day of the dog, in the fifth month of Yuriko's pregnancy.

The ceremony itself took place at Shirahata Hachiman Taijin, our local Shinto shrine. Yuriko ordered a belt in advance, and took it along. It was placed on an offering tray in front of the shrine throughout the ceremony. In form, the ceremony was a standard shrine ceremony. We took our seats in the outer shrine, and the presiding priest beat the taiko drum to open proceedings. He then said the purification prayer, and waved the purification wand (which looks like a giant paper shaker) to cleanse both the shrine and us. This also purified the belt, making it good for Yuriko. Or something like that.

Chakutai Shiki The four of us outside the shrine after the ceremony. The parcel that Yuriko is holding contains the belt.

The main part of the ceremony was a prayer for safe delivery, that the child would grow healthy and strong, and be born without any injury to either child or mother. I can go along with that. Our names get inserted in the prayer, and the priest got Yuriko's name wrong the first time he read it. Fortunately, he noticed right away, and corrected it. He said something before the correction that I didn't quite catch, but I'm guessing it was a standard "oops" word.

After the prayer, we went up towards the inner shrine to do our ceremonial bows. Formally, I believe that this is actually the central part of the ceremony.

After that, we received a bottle of sake and some bonito flakes, which formed a symbolic communal meal, and a couple of "safe childbirth" charms. One is an amulet, which is designed for Yuriko to carry around. It's really quite pretty, in red and gold. The other is an o-fuda, which is a wooden tablet with the name of the shrine deity on it, and which you keep on the kamidana (household shrine). It's actually a specific "safe childbirth" o-fuda, as it has that written on, as well as Yuriko's name. I hadn't realised that they did specific ones for that. After giving us these items, the priest beat the drum again to close the ceremony.

Yuriko and the Azaleas Yuriko at the Azalea Temple.

Yuriko's parents then took us out for lunch to celebrate, and we went to a Chinese restaurant that Yuriko sees every day from the bus, but has not previously had a chance to visit. It's near the Azalea Temple, which we went to last year, and the direction signs were already up. We decided that meant that the azaleas were already in flower, so we went to look. They were, and the temple was beautiful.

We also went up into the temple, because they have just taken delivery of a new statue of Fudo-myo-o, a deity quite important in Japanese Buddhism. He looks a lot like a demon, because he fights evil spirits, and the carved flames that formed his back drop reached the ceiling of the temple. One of the monks was explaining it to some other people, so I got to listen in a bit. Apparently, they had to reinforce the foundations under that bit of the temple so that the statue wouldn't go through the floor. I can believe it; it was quite a big statue, and, I think, solid wood. It smelled good, too; I wonder how long that will last.

Another interesting thing was that the statue had not yet been formally dedicated, and so the three figures (Fudo-myo-o, and two much smaller assistants) had bandages wrapped around their heads to cover their eyes. You don't get to see the statues in that state very often.

I don't tend to think of the Buddha images in temples as new, although obviously they all were at some point, so it was interesting to see one that had only just been put in place.

What with all that going on, and a fair bit of research reading to do before I could really write much, I ended up writing 33,000 words in ten days to finish the project. I handed the drafts over yesterday, so that is now done. All in all, it's been a good month, albeit a bit busier than I would ideally like. Somehow, though, I get the feeling that busy months will become the norm, starting around, oh, September...