Koi

I realized that I have rather a lot of photos of koi (carp). So here they are.

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Some notes on manners

Gratuitous armor photo

On the Japan Info blog/website, I came across a list of “7 Daily Habits Considered Rude Elsewhere, But are Perfectly OK in Japan.” Yes, I’m susceptible to clickbait, but it’s still an interesting list.

The seven things are:

Not tipping

Nope, not done here; this is good

Being indirect

“hiding” the meaning of what you really mean to say by minimizing complaints or overstating compliments.

Interrupting when someone else is speaking

In other words, Japanese conversations have more feedback—saying things like “I see,” “really,” “uh huh” more frequently than in English, for example.

Not holding doors open for other people

Not sure, see comments below.

Making noise when eating

Must slurp the noodles!

Pushing people when getting in or off the train

Necessity.

Shouting for service in a restaurant

I’m not sure about all restaurants, but definitely in pub-style restaurants, just yell “sumimasen” to get the server’s attention.

As previously discussed, I would also add “smoking permitted indoors especially restaurants”, which is among the very worst and rudest things about Japan in my opinion.

But anyway, on the topic of #4, I haven’t really noticed whether people tend to hold open doors generally or not, but definitely people do hold open elevator doors. This is a very minor thing, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The gym I go to is on the 6th floor of a building, and you have to use the elevator to get there. Without fail, the person in the elevator closest to the door holds down the “open” button and allows others to exit first. This is great when, for example, the elevator is really crowded or there’s a baby stroller or elderly person with a shopping trolley. But if there are only, say, 3 people in the elevator, it’s really annoying! People tend to make a big show saying どうぞ (douzo) “go ahead”, “no, after you” “please, you first” etc. etc. … and then no one ends up getting out of the elevator before more people start getting in. I’m usually the one who appears very rude by being the first out of the elevator, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice so that we don’t have to be trapped in the elevator forever. (And, I now make a point to hold the door open whenever I’m closest to the button, just so I’m not rude all the time.)

 

Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:

3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした

“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework

Sakura season is waning

In our part of Japan, the cherry blossom season is waning—many trees are still a shimmering pink, but green is starting to show through and the petals are fluttering down.

We live on a beautiful sakura-lined street, and you can feel everyone’s happy spirit as they walk a bit slower than usual to gaze up at the blossoms.

Winter in Japan

“Winter in Japan” is diverse, actually, as there are several climatic regions. Northern Japan has some of the snowiest large cities on earth, while Okinawa in the south is tropical.

My experience is of the Kanto region (that is, central eastern Japan), where it gets cold, but not too cold, and snow is fairly rare in recent years. Lately the overnight temperature has been getting down to 0 C (32 F), which is very chilly when you don’t have central heating or proper insulation. I don’t know about northern locales, but around here, people generally have wall-mounted air conditioner / heaters, and frequently kerosene or electric space heaters, and drafty windows and doors.

For readers in warmer climes who romanticize the idea of a cold winter, let me remind you of the following: drippy noses, never-ending colds, everyone coughing on the bus, numb fingers and toes, steamed up glasses when you come inside, being simultaneously hot and cold when you’re bundled up but walking around a lot, mold danger from window condensation, slipping on ice, feeling dried out from heaters, painfully cold water from the taps, etc. etc. etc. So yeah, not that romantic.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to share a nifty list from the Gaijinpot blog, with ‘top 10 tips‘ for winter comfort in Japan. In summary:

  1. Thick curtains and window-sealing plastic
  2. Socks and slippers
  3. Nabe (hot-pot) dinners
  4. Kotatsu (yay!)
  5. Electric carpets
  6. Hot baths
  7. Electric kettles
  8. Walk around in the mall
  9. Stick-on warmers
  10. Travel somewhere else!

(Click through to the blog post to read more.)

New Year’s food

The last three days have pretty much been filled with eating. Because, New Year’s food.

正月 (Oshogatsu) — the Japanese New Year — is the biggest holiday of the year, and of course there are rituals, traditions, and special food.  The holiday generally runs from December 31st to January 3rd, with most people spending time with family and often visiting shrines/temples.

On New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional to eat toshikoshi (New Year’s) soba (buckwheat noodles) for health and long life. We had ours with tsuyu (dashi stock), nagaimo (grated sticky yam/potato), and green onions.

Red/orange/yellow/gold foods are central to New Year’s cuisine, as shown in the photos below, all for good luck! Osechi refers to traditional New Year’s food served in stacked boxes. The style of food dates back more than 1000 years, with the idea being to preserve food to avoid cooking over the turn of the year (which I fully support). We’ve been in Japan for New Year’s before and have eaten many of the traditional dishes, but this was the first time we ordered osechi. I really enjoyed many of the items, but by design, much of it is pretty sweet or salty, so it’s definitely possible to stray into excess. We rather regretted having so much despite sharing it with family, so we’ll have to find some more people to share with next year, plus plan to eat more salad alongside.

For more descriptions of the specific food and their meanings, see Savvy Tokyo or Wikipedia.

Mochi, or sticky rice pounded into little cakes, is also central to New Year’s cuisine. There are several mochi items in the osechi boxes seen above. We also went to a mochi-tsuki, or mochi-making, in Yokohama. It was fun to see the rice being steamed and then pounded with huge mallets. Kids also got to line up and have a go with the mallet. And of course, eating it was the best!

Cooking the rice
Cooking the rice
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Mochi with kinako (soy bean powder) and anko (sweet red bean paste) respectively

(With the sounds of the kids’ mochi-making in the background)

Christmas in Japan

Wondering what Christmas in Japan is like? Think tons of decorations and merchandise, Christmas music blasting in the stores from the beginning of November, KFC, cakes, romantic dinners, and shopping! This GaijinPot blog post (EDIT: and another) has a good overview.

Although this is my first Christmas living in Japan, I’ve visited at this time of year three times before. Of course it’s different from back in North America or Australia, but it’s fun to do new things with a few nods to old traditions as well.

The must haves are: time with family, presents on Christmas Eve, stockings, and my treasured plastic Donald Duck “ornament.”

Happy Holidays to all.

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