David Chart's Japan Diary

July 14th 2008

It's been a long time since I've written a diary entry. This is because there's been too much going on; I've had things to write about, but no time to write them. So, I have to start by going back more than a month, and then move forward.

Eri's Wedding

At the beginning of June, we were invited to the wedding of one of Yuriko's friends from the shared house she used to live in in Tokyo, Eri. Her family live in the countryside west of Tokyo, so the wedding was held in that region, up in the mountains. As a result, we decided to have a short holiday at the same time, and spend a couple of nights away.

Mayuki at Lunch Mayuki sitting at the table while we ate lunch.

The reception was being held at a resort hotel complex up in the mountains, called Resonare. The architecture was apparently designed to look a bit like an Italian village (a bit), with a central "street" with small shops and cafes, and some of the accommodation above that. The style is modern but pleasant, and the setting is very nice, with mountains in the background and lots of trees and greenery around. We arrived on the day of the wedding, and had time for lunch at the resort before we got changed to go to the wedding service.

The service was held in a real church. It was a very nice building, deep in the woods, and the east window was clear glass, with a view of trees beyond; it was actually very effective. Unfortunately, I didn't get to stay in the main church for much of the service, because Mayuki got bored and started fussing, so I had to take her out into the vestibule. I was, however, able to look through the windows in the doors and see the exchange of vows, rings, and kisses. Getting to spend time in the vestibule allowed me to confirm that it was a real church; there was a preaching and organ rota posted on one of the noticeboards. The minister is Norwegian, and the the church is all wooden, in the Scandinavian style. I have no idea how large the congregation is, but walking there can't be practical for very many people.

Then it was back to Resonare for the reception. The reception room was long and narrow, with glass walls on the long sides. Outside the windows was a woodland, which made for a very nice setting. Eri spent a significant period of time (I'm not sure exactly how long, but I think at least on the order of a year) studying English in Ireland, and is very good at English. That's why, when she came to our wedding, we put her in the single vacant seat on my family's table, so that the person in that place would be able to talk to the people around her. While she was in Ireland, She became very good friends with her host family, and invited them to her wedding. They speak no Japanese, so they were put next to me at the reception, and I provided explanations as necessary.

One thing that needed some explanation was the speeches. There were a lot of speeches. In fact, every single guest made a speech. Fortunately, they were all short speeches. This was doubly fortunate in the case of the speeches from Eri's Irish friends, as I had to translate them into Japanese. However, as I mentioned in my speech, after Eri had volunteered to talk to my family, I hardly felt I could say no. Around the speeches, the food was excellent, and Mayuki was fairly good most of the time. She wouldn't sit in her own chair, though, so Yuriko and I had to swap her between us.


Suwa The scenery at Suwa. You can see a little of the lake at the bottom right, and a hawk in the sky.

We spent the night of the wedding at Resonare, and the next day got the train a bit further into the mountains, to Suwa. Suwa is the name of a medium-sized lake, of the main towns on its shore, and of the old and important Shinto Shrine in the towns. There are two towns, Kami (or upper) Suwa and Shimo (or lower) Suwa. Naturally, as they are on the shore of the same lake, neither is actually any higher than the other in terms of elevation, and I suspect that the names of the towns come from the shrine, which is split into four separate precincts.

The upper shrine, in Kami Suwa, is divided between the Hon Miya (main shrine) and Mae Miya (front shrine). We didn't get to that one, as it's some way from the lake; I think it is probably physically higher than the lower shrine. The lower shrine, in Shimo Suwa, is divided between the Haru Miya (spring shrine) and Aki Miya (autumn shrine). We actually visited the Aki Miya, and that's where the picture was taken.

Suwa Taisha Suwa Taisha, Aki Miya.

The Suwa shrine is mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest Japanese collection of legends and history. According to that story, the Kami of Suwa was defeated in a wrestling match by one of the Kami sent from Takamagahara to prepare the way for the arrival of the Japanese Imperial line, and ran away to Suwa. He promised to stay in Suwa and not cause trouble if the Kami from Takamagahara promised not to kill him. I have a sneaking suspicion that this legend would be slightly different had it been written by the people who lived around Suwa, rather than at the Imperial Court, but, alas, there is nothing else remaining from that period; the legends surviving from Suwa itself are several hundred years later.

These days, it is famous for two reasons. First, the Hon Miya has no Honden, no building in which the Kami is enshrined. Instead, the mountain behind it is regarded as the body of the Kami. The bodies of the Kami at the two lower shrines are trees. This is generally believed to be a relic of the oldest form of Shinto practice, and there are very few shrines in Japan that preserve it; even the Grand Shrines at Ise have a Honden. (The most famous other example is Omiwa Shrine in Nara prefecture.)

The second reason is the Onbashira (Honourable Pillar) Festival. One of the Honourable Pillars is visible in the photograph, at the right hand side. There are four at each of the four shrines, standing at the corners of the most sacred part of the precincts. Each is the trunk of a single tree, an metre or so in diameter and about sixteen metres tall. All sixteen pillars are replaced once every seven years, in the festival. Suitable trees are selected from fixed forests, and then cut down with great ceremony. Young men from the area then push them down a steep slope, and try to ride them down. People sometimes get killed doing this, so the festival is famous as one of Japan's strange festivals.

Yuriko Yuriko at the shrine, standing under the sacred rope. It's quite a big rope.

We were staying in a ryokan/hotel right on the lake shore, with a glorious view out across the lake. As we stayed on a weekday night, there weren't a lot of other people there, and somehow the staff knew who we were as soon as the taxi arrived. I can't think how they managed to connect my appearance to my name so quickly. We visited the shrine on the first day, just fitting in the visit and a very pleasant lunch before it started raining really heavily. Dinner in the hotel was very nice, and included raw horse meat, which is a regional speciality. It's also very tasty, really.

On the Tuesday, we took the train to Kami Suwa, round the lake, and visited a couple of museums, because it was raining again. The first was an art museum, the second was devoted to glass. One of Yuriko's friends from university had worked there for a while, and Yuriko spent some time making a paperweight for Mayuki. I say "making"; actually, the glass was already made, and Yuriko just engraved the design onto it. Mayuki spent most of the time we were there asleep, although she seemed to enjoy most of the trip. She did cry, a lot, when our evening meal was served (in our room), for which the poor woman serving apologised repeatedly. However, she was very happy and cheerful the next morning at breakfast.

All in all, Suwa seems like a very nice area, and if we decide to move out of the Tokyo at some point (a possibility, although not an immediate one), it might well be a candidate destination. The thing that most surprised me was seing about half a dozen hawks in the sky at once; it must be a very good region for them.

Rose Garden

Family at the Rose Garden The three of us in the Rose Garden.

The next week, we went to a Rose Garden. This garden is officially part of Ikuta Ryokuchi, the largest park nearby, but it's physically separate. It used to be part of an amusement park, but that went bankrupt some time ago, and the rose garden is the only bit still open to the public. However, it's only open twice a year, for two or three weeks each time. So, we had to seize the opportunity. We went with our local friends, although they drove over while we walked (we live a bit closer). The garden is very nice, and very western style. As well as the roses, it has nice lawns that Mayuki and our friends' daughter could play on, although Mayuki wasn't crawling very much at that point. We did notice, however, that she wasn't as keen to put things in her mouth as our friends' daughter, a trait she has retained. At the moment, this is a good thing overall, although Mayuki is also a bit choosy about her food.

We went on the last day that the garden was open, and there were a couple of outdoor concerts, as well as food stands. There were quite a few people there, but it wasn't quite crowded, and the weather, while warm, was not oppressive, and it didn't actually rain on us. Overall, then, it turned out to be a very nice day out.

And that, I think, is where I'm going to have to leave this for today, because I will need to look after Mayuki again in a few minutes.