Have you ever wondered why Japanese people bow so much?
This is an interesting point of Japanese culture that can sometimes be a bit difficult for foreigners to understand. But knowing when and how to bow can really help you improve your interactions with native Japanese speakers.
You may think of bowing as strictly cultural, but the truth is, you need to know bowing etiquette to properly speak Japanese. Bowing is so integrated into the Japanese language, there’s even a way to sign a bow when you are using Japanese sign language.
Let’s start with how to bow, then we’ll get to different situations where bowing is necessary.
How to Bow
The main part of bowing is how far you are supposed to bow. Sometimes we may think that you should always give deep bows from the waist. That’s actually pretty formal.
If you want to give a casual bow, sometimes just a head nod is enough. If someone holds the door for you or your friend says hi to you, you don’t need to go full bow. You’ll get so used to bowing like this, you may start doing it while people are talking to you or even on the phone. This is by far, the most common way to bow.
When you get into more formal situations, such as business meetings or meeting people you should probably show respect to, it’s better to give a deeper bow. This doesn’t mean 90 degrees (we’ll get to that). This is just a normal, hands at your side, bending forward a bit to show respect sort of bow. This kind of seems like the most stereotypical way of bowing in Japan, at least from a foreigner’s perspective.
When you get into a bow any deeper than those two, it usually means you either really respect someone, or you have done something very wrong. A bow at 90 degrees is generally reserved for a very formal apology. Anything more than that (like a kowtow) is definitely excessive. Don’t do that.
Now let’s talk about some basic bowing situations.
This is probably the easiest one to remember. When you greet someone, you should bow. Typically when you say hello to people you know, the typical nod-style bow is plenty. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, and they are a higher social rank than you, the more formal bow is totally fine.
In business situations, you will generally provide the person you are greeting with a business card. It’s important to bow as you present it.
This might be the situation a lot of foreigners think of when they think of bowing. While the depth of a bow given with an apology does directly correlate to the action being apologized for, chances are you won’t need to bow a full 90 degrees.
The only time I’ve seen Japanese people bow like this is during very formal (usually televised) apologies from the head of a company who has done something very bad.
Generally, if you bow during an apology you can determine how low to bow by understanding how what you did affect the other person. Reading the air is an important part of the entire Japanese language, and that includes bowing.
Bowing is also a good way to show gratitude. If you know a Japanese person, chances are they don’t really show a lot of physical affection. When an American receives a present, a hug can definitely happen. But if you try to hug your native Japanese friend, they may feel very awkward. Japanese culture tends not to express love in the same ways as many other countries.
A bow is a nice way to acknowledge that you appreciate what has been done. Again, the depth of the bow is significant. When someone holds a door for you, the normal nod is plenty. But if someone has really gone out of their way to do something for you, a more formal bow is a great way to show your gratitude (again, you don’t need to do that 90-degree bow or kowtow. Please don’t kowtow).
Why does it matter?
We may not think much of bowing. Or we may think it’s just a novel little bit of Japanese culture. But if you know anything about Japanese culture, you’ll know the importance of showing respect to the people around you. There’s a lot of little things Japanese people do to show respect, even simple things like being quiet on the train to not disturb other passengers. Respect is built into the very language.
Bowing is a way to outwardly show respect to whoever you are talking to. It’s also a major way you can show your native Japanese friends that you understand their culture and help them be comfortable around you. Bowing shows humility, and the Japanese language is big on humility. So make sure you loosen up and get those bows in as you talk to people. Before you know it, you’ll be nodding your head no matter who talks to you.
If you’d like to learn more about the Japanese language and how to improve, check out our recent article “Stop Learning Kanji” and be sure to listen to our daily podcast!
Today we learn a something epic and huge. That is verbs. Verbs are the most important part of the Japanese sentence alongside the predicate. That is because everything in the Japanese sentence is organized around whatever is at the and of the sentence. Which in Japanese is the predicate or a verb. Verb in Japanese can be kind tricky. So in order to appropriately understand them and not get unnecessarily confused, we will first discuss the three different types of verbs before we talk about conjugation and all the other things that verbs do.
In Japanese there are three types of verbs. Ichidan, Godan (also called Yodan) and exception verbs. Unlike many other languages, Japanese does not have many exception verbs, which makes things really nice. It’s important to understand that the three unique verb types now so we can learn how to conjugate them later.
While some grammarians and old-time teachers will often over complicate this the easiest way to differentiate the two types is to spell the verbs out in romanized letters (IE; ABC.) All Ichidan verbs are verbs that end in “ERU” or “IRU” it is that simple. All other verbs are Godan verbs. Period.
Look at the verbs below and identify which are Ichidan verbs and Which are Godan verbs. The answers will be listed under the last frame of the comic.
Family is an important and often tricky thing. While at first it may appear as simple as Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister, there are a few other perspectives that we forget when we assume family is that simple. Today’s lesson is about 1. Perspective, and 2. Respect. We will be breaking down the basic Japanese family unit and all it’s special intricacies.
Mom. While this may be some people’s first word, there are numerous ways to say mom in English. Mom, Ma, Mother, Mommy, Mama, etc. However in Japanese there is considerably less variation. However, the word you use for you family members tends to be different than the words that you would use for another person’s family members. Therefore I will make two lists explaining the words used for each.
In the lists below you will notice that though you may refer to a person in one way, you may call them another. This is because when you speak to other people you are working to make the other person, the listener, feel comfortable. Hence, you will try to use more humble versions of the words. Your family always fall under your area of information.
If you would like to learn more about area of information check back on chapter two of the comic where we break down “Yo” and “Ne” which also use this very important concept.
*This is the term when referring to this member of your family, however you call them the title in the “listener’s” Column.
** The first word is considered somewhat traditional and is being slowly fazed out. The second term is considered more politically correct.
*** The second implies that there are more than one. (Plural)
****You can be even more polite and replace “San” with “Sama”
あんた – You
こと – Thing (intangible object)
する – to verb
とか – “Things Like”
信じられない （しんじられない） – Cannot Believe
*Sometimes Japanese people write things in Katakana to add emphasis.
２人（ふたり) – 2 people
とも – Both
自分（じぶん） – individual
の – Connecting Particle
部屋（へや） – Room
に – Directional Particle
行き（いき いく） – To Go
な – Reflective Particle
お母さん（おかあさん） – Mom
に – Directional Particle
ストレス – Stress
を – Object Particle
かける – This verb has tons of meanings but in this case it means to add
The #1 problem that I tend to come across with beginners that are learning Japanese, is the overzealous and premature attempt to learn Kanji.
Working in Japan as a Mormon missionary, as well as a Teaching Assistant and eventually a Professional Language teacher, I have run into this problem time and time again. Young beginning learners trying to ‘hack’ Japanese by plunging head-first into learning Kanji before creating a stable foundation in the language. Young learners seem to latch onto learning the Joyo Kanji characters as if it will help them learn the language faster. When in reality, learning Kanji too early will hinder your learning.
The Danger of ‘Decoding’
The first problem this causes is something called ‘decoding’ where learners attempt to translate words by their kanji composition, as opposed to the word’s actual meaning. This is a major problem for Chinese and Cantonese learners particularly. Because they can grasp each of the symbols but don’t have enough of a grasp of the grammar or vocabulary, they are left finding meanings that were never implied or intended.
Here are a few examples of words that are commonly decoded incorrectly.
To Confess – 告白 (Symbols for Inform and White)
Son – Musuko 息子 (Symbols for Breath and Child)
Baby – Akachan 赤ちゃん (Symbol for Red)
Perhaps – Tabun多分 (Symbols for Many and Part)
Moreover, each of these above words are written in Kanji that have little-to-nothing to do with their original meanings. Which means that by learning Kanji prematurely they will incorrectly identify, or not by able to identify any of these words properly.
Intransitive and Transitive verbs are already a major hurdle for learning Japanese as it is. However, the hurdle is compounded in difficultly for people who emphasize the learning of Chinese characters above grammar. The words below use the same Kanji but have very different meanings.
To Enter – 入る
To Insert – 入れる
The key to understanding these difficult verb types is in the study of particles. As for where Kanji-centered linguists will often misunderstand, and not be able to identify or parse these words as they, unfortunately, learn that 入 only has X meaning. Which is not correct.
Kanji’s Many Meanings.
This carries me to my next point. Kanji is an adopted syllabary (alphabet) from the Chinese tradition. When the Japanese adopted this writing system they attached their native words to Chinese characters. Which means that when there was no kanji that fit a particular word in their native tongue, they simply attached it to an (often arbitrary) kanji. See the example below.
To Heal (a wound) – 治る (なおる)
To Rule (a kingdom) – 治める (おさめる)
While the above Kanji use the same symbol, what exactly is the connection between Osameru and Naoru? Studiers who base their study exclusively on Kanji often focus on only one meaning as to simplify their study. This leads to many many problems, which is yet another reason why learners should wait until they have a solid foundation until they learn Kanji.
With two different reading to memorize for each Kanji, learners of Japanese often will often memorize the most common reading initially and learn the rest with time. This is effective and can help the learner expedite their learning process. However, without a solid foundation, how do they know which reading is the most common? Hence, take the Kanji below as an example:
Kanji is a super fun and interesting writing system. Heck, half of the reason some people learn this amazing language is because they like the complex and intricately creative symbols. However, just like with everything, you need to learn how to walk before you run. I hate seeing beginners glut their brains with Kanji, only to give up due to the shear amount there is to learn.
Getting stuck and dis-heartened with Japanese at an early stage is often because the new learner doesn’t get any immediate positive feedback from their study. They need to see results right away, or their fire for the world’s best language will go out. Yet how are they supposed to get positive feedback if all they know are Kanji? People who study mostly Kanji in the beginning, often find themselves not being able to read, speak, write, or listen. All they get are a couple hundred interesting but otherwise useless symbols.
Moreover, while this whole time these amazing young Padawans are thinking they are diligently studying Japanese, but in reality, all they are doing is learning a poor party trick. Because without a solid and sufficient background they WILL founder. This is why there is no Kanji in our 30 Day Challenge.
How to actually Study Kanji
One bite at a time.
Kanji can be a great toll for explaining concepts, expanding vocabulary and crucial to reading and writing. The knowledge of how Kanji works can even effect speaking and communication if implemented correctly into their study. The key is HOW.
The best advice I can give to make sure they are using Kanji as a tool to elevate language study, as opposed to dominating it. Learn the kanji for the word, and not the word for the kanji. Add Kanji into your study to expand understanding of concepts, like verb stems and conjugation, but not exclusively. A truly effective method, that helps people speak, read, write and listen requires a holistic and balanced approach that moves the learner to communication. Communication that makes the listener feel comfortable.
I love Kanji. I have kanji that are important to me on my wall in my living room. I have Kanji on the background of my desktop, phone and even as my company logo. I think Kanji in the Japanese world is a quintessential part of Japanese. So much so I feel it captures powerful intrinsic meaning and information, with in part influences my opinion that Japanese is indeed the world’s best language. Just make sure you take it a step at a time.
Today we are going to talk about KANJI. We will be getting back to particles and verb tenses starting again next week, that and this week is going to be a little bit of an odd lesson as there isn’t much talking going on this week in the story. Japanese uses three main writing systems, as you might already be aware. If you are reading this comic that means you are at least somewhat familiar with Hiragana and Katakana. Which is awesome. The last ‘alphabet’ if you will, is the hardest and most difficult of the three systems.
Kanji are difficult to master, and are something that even advanced learners struggle with. There always seem to be another reading, another meaning, or another combination that you just don’t know. Which can make kanji somewhat frustrating. However, never fear, We have started a series on Youtube to teach Japanese Kanji to you, one day and symbol at a time. There are tons or other useful tools out there too.
The one thing we do want to tell beginning learners, and even some high beginner/intermediate learners is:
1 It is completely OK to take your time on Kanji
2 Make sure learn the readings and the meaning not just one or the other.
Find out how to read Kanji and the two different kinds of readings.
For today’s lesson check out our new Youtube Channel below.
Have you ever watched something in Japanese and the subtitles don’t quite match up? Well, today I’m going to explain why.
Pretty much every Japanese learner has had this experience. A great way to solidify language learning is to watch things in that language. When you do this, it gives you a chance to hear vocabulary and grammar structures in context. It’s not quite as good as a full immersive experience, but sometimes that just isn’t available.
Watching movies, dramas, and anime isn’t going to teach you Japanese, but it can at least give you some good listening practice (plus, there’s some really great shows out there). If you do, you’re probably going to have subtitles on just because a lot of shows have very specific vocabulary that you might not understand from learning normal conversational Japanese. Even after studying Japanese for over six years, I prefer subtitles for this exact reason.
As you learn more Japanese and reach more intermediate and advanced levels, you might start to notice that the subtitles and the Japanese don’t quite match up. At first, you might be a bit annoyed by this. Or maybe you don’t care. I was annoyed by it. Some of it comes from whoever translated it, but a big part of it is that Japanese and English grammar are very different. One key difference is this fancy grammatical thing called context.
If we take English as our comparison, it’s pretty easy to see why context is important in Japanese. English is what is known as a Low Context Language. That means you generally won’t need much background knowledge when talking to someone. If we talk about ourselves, we generally will say “I” or “me” or something like that in the sentence. The subject and object of the sentence are sometimes replaced, but usually not omitted.
You can see an example of this in a sentence like “Sarah ate pie.” Sarah can be replaced by “she” and pie can be replaced by “it” without changing the meaning. But if you shorten the sentence to “Sarah ate,” it changes the meaning. All the words are necessary in this sentence for it to stay the same.
Now let’s take a look at the same sentence in Japanese. If we directly translate this sentence, we would end up with something like “Sara ga pai wo tabeta” (サラがパイを食べた). There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but there are definitely a few grammar things we can talk about here.
Japanese, unlike English, is a High Context Language. This means that when you speak with someone, they expect you to have some background knowledge of what they are talking about. This can make language a bit more confusing for a learner, but it also makes it a lot more efficient.
If you are talking to someone, and you are already talking about Sarah, there is no reason for you to say her name again, unless for emphasis. So this sentence could become “Pai wo tabeta,” and it would mean the exact same thing. If you are already talking about the delicious pie your friend made, and someone asks you who ate it, you could reply with “Sara ga tabeta.” And if you have been talking about Sarah and pie the whole time, you could just say “Tabeta,” and it would still mean “Sarah ate pie.”
You can do all this because of context. Sure, you can use the whole “Sara ga pai wo tabeta” sentence, but it sounds like a little much in most circumstances. The way you phrase things can really affect how they are emphasized in Japanese, so it’s important to be aware of context in your conversations.
This all translates back into those subtitles I was talking about. Sometimes in Japanese TV shows and movies, a character will just say something like “Tabeta.” The problem for translating that into English is that “ate” isn’t a sentence. This is why the subtitles don’t always match the dialogue. If you’ve ever watched one of those old dubbed over Godzilla movies, you can see it there too. The English voices will be either hilariously short or long compared to how long the Japanese actors move their mouths. We sometimes make fun of that, but it really shows that translating between Japanese and English can be quite challenging.
As you keep learning Japanese, the idea of high context is good to remember. It makes conversations go a lot smoother when you know what you can assume the listener knows. It can also help you sound more fluent when you speak with natives. But another thing to note is that it’s okay to ask when you don’t understand the context. Because Japanese is such a high context language, it’s pretty common for a speaker to assume the listener knows something they actually don’t. So if someone says “Tabeta,” to you, and you don’t know who ate what, feel free to ask. Japanese people are super nice and really appreciative of any effort you make to learn their language.
So with that, keep on working on your Japanese! Use subtitles from shows and movies to help you learn more about context. It’s easy to see where things are omitted in Japanese when you compare subtitles to dialogue.
If you are looking to continue to improve your Japanese, be sure to check out our daily podcast!
Let’s continue talking about this formality and hierarchy stuff.
Out of these four levels it is important to be able to identify/distinguish oneself in Japanese. What this means is, the word “I” and “you” change depending on who you are addressing, and how you would address them.
Let’s start with the word “I”
Honorific / Humble わたくし
Informal ぼく あたし
Familiar おれ あっし
Each one of these words gives off a particular image of the person speaking. Watakushi is extremely polite. While women and girls tend to use Watashi just like a boy or man would use Boku, even in informal situations. In fact men tend to use Boku much more than women as it is seen as more masculine; that goes for Ore as well. Overall women tend to use Watashi all the time, and Men use Watashi when being polite and Boku the rest of the time.
Moreover, There are informal and other ways for one to refer to themselves. Words like Sessha 拙者 and Wagahai 我輩 were used by the old samurai. Women and some men also use the word Uchi 内 to refer to themselves but it is seen as slightly old fashioned or and even slightly odd for men. Another way to refer to yourself is simply speaking in the 3rd person, this is how most children speak. There are many different ways to refer to yourself. I recommend staying away from the lower levels (3 & 4 for women, and 4 for men) when speaking to anyone who might be higher on the food-chain than yourself.
The next step is to make sure you are referring to the person to whom you are speaking correctly. When addressing another person you would normally use their name plus a suffix. We have covered suffixes briefly in a previous chapter so we won’t go too much into depth aside from showing you where they might fit on this hierarchy.
Honorific / Humble Name+さま (If a teacher: Name+せんせい)
Familiar Name Name+たん
Now there are a couple of words that simply mean “you.” However, these are generally seen as somewhat rude. In fact, Most Japanese people will use familiar terms like little brother/older sister/grandpa etc. to address another person if they must call upon them and don’t know their name (and sometimes even if they do.) I will list them here from most ‘formal’ to least just so you hear them. Also if you must use any of them, stick with Anata. Just in case.
ここ – Here
で – Location of Action Marker
何 (なに) – What
してる – Doing
か – ?
って – Tell me
あんた – You
してる – Doing
俺 おれ – I
と – Quotative Particle
え – EEh
待って (まって) (Comes From まつ ) – Wait!
一体 (いったい) – “…in the world”
に- Direction Marker
行く (いく) – To Go
んだろう – I Wonder
の – Connective Particle
ばか – Idiot
Check out our new Kanji Series on Youtube. Where every Single day John Sensei teaches you a new Kanji.
As host of Learn Japanese w/ Manga Sensei podcast, I often get asked about how to ‘hack’ Japanese. People want to learn a language faster and without the pain that comes along with learning a new language. Ya know, the tough stuff that makes you want to roll into a ball and ask yourself why you even started learning it in the first place. While I do believe that people should work as hard as they can to learn a language, I have found a couple of key sentences that have helped me orient myself in this space.
”How would you say it [as a native speaker]”
Native speakers of Japanese or any language for that matter, are one of the greatest resources for learning the target tongue. However,
most people are not professional language learners or teachers. Which often leads them to say things ‘improperly’ or ‘wrong.’ This prescriptive type of language learning has its place. No much of a place, but a place. I believe that people should try to articulate themselves as closely as they can to how a native speaker would. Hence a wonderful question is indeed “How would you say that?”
I find this most useful when I say something ‘correctly’, or at least how I understand it should be said and I’m not immediately understood. If they appear confused, I quickly clarify and then ask them how they would have said it. After hearing it and repeating it to myself I often type a quick note into my phone so I can make sure I can speak more like they do.
“I’m sorry, would you mind writing that down for me?”
When I first lived in Japan and could hardly speak the language, I was told to quickly learn this phrase. I was working with a fellow foreigner who had wonderful Japanese but was too focused on what we were doing to teach me every little word I didn’t know. He also didn’t want his work slowed down by someone who was always asking questions like I was.
Instead of pestering him or one of our native co-workers all the time, and if I was given something to do but didn’t quite understand, I quickly learned to asked people to write it down for me. While them may seem more annoying than having them explain it to me in simpler Japanese, I found this actually took LESS time and I was able to literally see the grammar. This helped a ton and I was able to have a physical reminder of some key expressions/thing they wanted me to do. This helped me a lot, particularly when I was working in Japan.
“Could I ask you a question?
The fear of making mistakes is real. I used to be so caught up on having perfect Japanese that I would often cry during my language study. I was so stupidly focused one saying things properly, that was too shy to actually try the grammar that I had been learning when I had the chance. I figured, if I didn’t say anything at all I couldn’t make any mistakes. How right I was. So right in fact, that I retarded my Japanese speaking ability until I learned a simple truth.
No one was going to remember me anyway.
While this may sound harsh, this was a great comfort to me. I realized that if I spoke to somebody on the train and they didn’t understand me or felt pestered by, would inevitably forget me as soon as they stepped off the train. I thought of how many times people had asked me in broken or non-native English for me to take a picture for them or where the [insert word here] was and I couldn’t recall a single face. I was so caught up that I forgot how forgettable and forgiving people really are.
With that, I decided to try and talk with random people on the train, on the bus, in line at the store, and even standing on the street corner. I literally talked to everyone I came across. Now I should mention that I was awkward and had a horrid accent. I didn’t know how to start up a conversation out of thin air and had little to no idea what to talk about.
(This is not permission to be a creep or say things in inappropriate circumstances)
However, just like when you buy a PT cruiser and suddenly you see PT cruisers everywhere, I saw people making short and friendly conversation all the time once I started. I listened to how normal native people started casual, friendly, and easy to understand conversations. I found that just by asking if I could ask them a question, I could also learn tons of new words (and amazing places to eat.) I asked where things were, I asked how to get there, I asked what was the best [insert favorite thing here] was. I even made friends this way. I found great places to buy clothes and after the first 3 months or so it became like second nature. I also got to see Japan from a new perspective. The perspective of the Salaryman, the Mother-in-law, and the High School Student.
I got to see people having a conversation and where they liked to hang out. I found nice Cafes and quiet little parks. But more importantly, I learned how to overcome fear and feel natural in conversation. I learned that if I screwed up in Japanese it is 100% ok. Yeah, there are some bad apples who will be rude, but they are the exception, NOT the rule. You can find bad eggs anywhere.
Basically, I learned that to ‘hack’ Japanese you need to hack away at your insecurities and fears. The only shortcut to learning Japanese is how much of your fears you are willing to cut into. Japanese is a wonderful and lovely language that has changed my life, which is why I teach it on my podcast every single day, 365 days a year. If you love Japanese or any language, I recommend you try and speak, even if it is only these three sentences.
Let’s take a quick pause from all of our intense grammar study and talk a little about greeting and levels of formality.
Japanese is a hierarchical language. This means that there are a number of levels of diction and respect. These levels are important to all parties because they allow people to show respect or disrespect through the way they speak. here are four main level that we use in Japanese, and each of these levels are dependent who is speaking and to whom. Before we get into that however, let’s talk about these four levels.
Honorific / Humble
At first glance these four levels may seem fairly restrictive, because English seems like such a free language when in fact the opposite is true. Think about how you would speak to your best friend as opposed to your boss. Naturally you give your boss or a teacher more respect, and even speak differently depending on who you are speaking with. For example the word “you”, I would call my boss ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Sir’, ‘you’ to an unknown person I meet at the bus stop, and ‘dude’ or ‘man’ to my friends. I address people differently depending where they are on the invisible social spectrum. This is the exact same thing in Japanese.
You speak with a certain level of politeness depending on the hearer’s position, age, role, or experience. Just like we learned before we use certain words depending on how formal we are being. だ is the informal version of です. There are also certain greetings that can be used depending on who you are speaking with. If you are speaking to someone who is your same age, grade, position or a close friend/family member you would use the Informal greetings below and for anyone above your level, the Formal greetings.
Good Morning – おはようございます(Formal) おはよう(Informal)
How are you? おげんきですか？(Formal) げんき？(Informal)
However not every expression has a Formal/Informal version see below:
Good Afternoon/Hello – こんにちは
Good Evening – こんばんは
We will continue to talk more about these important levels are we move along.
Ding Dong! or RING- RING
Japanese Students stand and bow in unison at the beginning and end of each class.
さようなら – Goodbye
は Topic Marker
どんな – Which/What Type
音楽 (おんがく) – Music
聞いてる (きいている) Listen
の – ?
好きな (すきな) To Like
バンド – Band
とか – Or Something like
いる – To exist
一体 (いったい) – “…in the world”
に- Direction Marker
行く (いく) – To Go
んだろう – I Wonder
先輩 (せんぱい) – Upperclassman Suffix
は – Topic Marker
好きな (すきな) – To Like
人 (ひと) – Person
とか – Or Something like that
いる – To Exist
ん – Indicates an Explination
です – Predicate
か – ?
えーっと – Ummm
実は (じつは) – The Truth it
ね – Uh
え – Eeh?
で – Location of action
何 (なに) – What
している – Doing
の – ?
Check out our new Kanji Series on Youtube. Where every Single day John Sensei teaches you a new Kanji.
When deciding what language course or book you are going to pick off the shelf or add to your cart on Amazon, the first thing people often look for is how quickly the course or textbook will help them become ‘fluent.’ Language learners are always trying to find the *best* way to learn a new language, and for whatever reason, people aim for this dream of becoming fluent in Japanese.
This goal in of itself sounds lovely. Imagine some nice-looking human being talking about you and how attractive you are, wishing that you speak said language (Japanese) only for you to turn around and speak to them in polite and fluid Nihongo. Or traveling the Japanese country-side intermingling with the locals, sharing in stories and wonderful food. Maybe even having people confuse you for a native speaker when chatting jovially over the phone, etc… etc…
These are all wonderful goals and exciting/enviable experiences that you can do when you learn enough of the target language. But ‘fluency’ in the language, whatever that actually means, is an aimless and often fruitless pursuit. This is because there really isn’t a way to decide if someone is fluent or not.
How do You Become ‘Fluent’
If I told you that after 1 year of living in Japan you could be fluent would you believe me? How about 10 years? What about 30 years—would you be fluent then? Maybe. The reason being is that time and fluency are not directly correlated. Just because someone has lived in one place for a long time does not mean that they are wonderful speakers of that language. In fact, I interviewed a gentleman on my podcast who runs a blog and translated science fiction. He has never visited Japan until this summer, yet he has wonderful spoken Japanese and he is a thought leader in Japanese translation. If time was the deciding factor then he wouldn’t be fluent.
How then do you know if you are fluent? If you cannot get fluency through simply living in a country or spending time there, then there has to be some other way to decide if someone is fluent or not. I mean, if I am studying Japanese every day, when does the magic fluency card get bestowed upon me? Do you wake up one day magically fluent? Do you run a language race, memorize so many flashcards, or pass N1 of the JLPT ? Do Japanese angels descend from Mt. Fuji and crown you with the mantle of “Fluent Japanese Speaker-Sama?” As expected, tests, papers, and diplomas don’t equal proficiency. You can read 100 grammar books and follow 1,000,000 accounts on Instagram (follow me) and be no better than the day you started, if you never speak.
Language learners of all levels aspire in one way or another to become good at Japanese. We see people who are ahead of us in a specific linguistic area and often see ourselves considerably further behind them. That does nothing for your linguistic ability. Fluency is like saying you are going to be a pro at basketball without points, another team, a league, a court, and a million exceptions to every rule.
Without a clear and easy to understand goal in mind, saying that you are fluent in Japanese is a phrase without meaning. I believe in most situations my Japanese ability would be sufficient to allow me to do most everything that I would want to do in Japan. However, if I needed to visit a mechanic I would have to idea how to express what was wrong with my car, even if I knew it in English—despite my language ability.
What I’m getting at, is that in order for language learning and language teaching to move past its current constraints, we need to abandon meaningless jargon. The foremost among those hindering words and concepts is the bitter label of fluent—an arbitrary, and honestly, relative term.
So how do we move forward? The first step would be to stop contrasting fluency with Japanese grammatical accuracy. For anyone who has ever actually learned a language, you will find there is a difference between a good language learner and those who are the most grammatically accurate. In fact, they can fall on opposite sides of the ability spectrum. Every Interpreter and Translator that I have worked with or met (aside from bilingual people) has relayed to me in some fashion or another that the ability to speak like the target group is true fluency. Hence why interpreters and translators are taught, correctly I might add, to translate the meaning and not the objective vocabulary.
In Universities and High Schools, we Pidgeon-Hole students into matching words and choosing the ‘correct’ verb tense. Yet we often neglect the true spoken forms and function. An example of this would be Japanese adjectives. Any traditional Japanese teacher worth his/her salt would tell you that using an exclamative adjective like ‘yabai’ should not be pronounced ‘yabee’ or ‘yabaa,’ yet ask as any proficient non-linguist in Japan and you will undoubtedly find these forms very frequently. This is not incorrect grammar, it is prescriptive linguistic elitism masquerading as objective grammatical accuracy.
Because of the pervasive testing culture and the need to rank students, universities often run themselves away from actually helping people learn a language.
Where to go from here.
After 10,000 mistakes you become fluent. That was the best language learning advice I ever received. It is the motto of the Manga Sensei, and what I believe to be the only way to encourage people to actually progress in the language.
At Google software engineers are encouraged during their first 6 months to make as many mistakes as fast as possible to catch up with the programming that the rest of the team is working on. The American Air-Force is taught that in dog-fights they should not to worry as much about ammo preservation or initial shot accuracy, but should become experts at adjusting and getting on target before the enemy. In other words, make mistakes fast and self-correct.
Google and the American Airforce both encourage mistakes, even push their members to make mistakes as quickly as possible. Why then do why hold up student’s bad work in front of the class to berate them due to their obvious incompetence in a completely new language?
On the same token, LDS missionaries are spoken to exclusively in their target language at the Missionary Training Center, with locations all over the world. This intense training starts alongside religious study from day one. Then for the next 9-12 weeks, all while being religiously required to work, speak, and talk about religion in their new tongue immediately. These young 18 to 26-year-old young adults are vigorously encouraged to “open their mouth” before even stepping foot on the area of which they have been called to serve. They are even required to knock on people’s doors with little ability in the language. They are expected to make these mistakes in order to progress faster so they can do their job.
Maybe the Mormons have something here. Instead of shaming and condemning failure, they expected and encouraged language students to make mistakes? What if fluency, whatever that means, was no longer the goal—but progress was?
If you love a language and culture, I doubt that once the sacred fluency staff is granted to its honorary wielder that you spontaneously stopped studying and diving deep into your chosen culture. Instead, people passionate about a language, tend to be those who more profoundly drink from the cup of meaningful conversation and immersive experience.
People who love a language don’t ever stop learning it.
The third and final step that I can see is a reinvestment in goal setting and purpose-driven language study. As I have mentioned in a previous article on bad habits, if you want to achieve your purpose in Japanese or any other language your goals must properly align with it. What if we evaluated ourselves not on translations of vocabulary words, or how accurately you can quote arbitrary poetry, but on how well you—the language learner—could accomplish a task?
In summary, if you have a plan or goal to become fluent you might want to step away from the amorphic and meta, and onto the solid ground of actual language learning. Set goals, try to speak like a native, expect progress not fluency, and strive to make mistakes.
This week we are going to learn about another particle. This particle is in the top three of how commonly it is used. That is the possessive/Connective Particle の. No or のis often attributed to something like the ” ‘s ” in English, but it is important to make sure you do not directly translate particles. Doing so will get you in trouble faster than it will help you.
Below are a number of examples of how No can be used.
A possesses B.
ジョーダン の じてんしゃ
A is a specific type of B.
ホンダ の くるま
A made B.
サラ の サンドウィッチ
A is made of B.
もくざい の ふね
B of A
にほん の たいし
Ambassador of Japan
In each case you can see that that there is a connection between what is mentioned first and what の connects it too. In lay man’s terms の is used to indicate a connection or relationship between the two things. An important thing to also remember is that の also has another meaning that we will talk about another day. However , for simplicity’s sake, keep in mind that if the particle の is at the end of a sentence it typically means something different which we will talk about again later.
学校 がっこう School
どう – How
だった – Past Tense
楽しかった (たのしかった) Fun (past tense)
ああ – ahh
よかった – Good (past)
よ – !
でも – but
担任 (たんにん) Homeroom
の – ‘s
吉野先生 (よしのせんせい) Yoshino Sensei
が – Subject Marker
ちょっと – a little
変 (へん) – Strange
なん – What
だ – Predicate
よ – !
ね – huh
天狗 (てんぐ) – Tengu
を – Object Marker
絶対に (ぜったいに) Without Exception
信頼して (しんらいして) Trust
は – Topic Marker
だめ – Bad
よ – !
ええ – EEe
どういう – What
こと – Intangible thing
“What the heck was that?!”
*Masa and Yukiko (Mom) can see Yokai but Shunnosuke (Dad) a Natsuki cannot.
Just so you know…
What do you know about Tengu and Yokai? Learn More about them on our
一体 (いったい) “in the world”
何者 (なにもの) What person
なん – what
だ – predicate
A fun note: Japanese People refer to each-other with different suffixes. While there are many the most common is the word “-san” which is often compared to Mr. or Ms. However, there are also suffixes like:
Chan – Used for Women and young people
Kun – Used with handsome younger people, usually boys
Sama – Highest form of respect. USed after important people
Have you ever looked at anime and opera and wished someone would combine them into one form of entertainment? Well, I have good news for you. They already did. About 400 years ago.
A lot of people have heard of kabuki. It’s become synonymous with Japan, which makes sense because it is a Japanese tradition, but it is also more popular in media than other iconic forms of Japanese drama(we’ll talk about noh and bunraku later).
Kabuki(歌舞伎) is a type of Japanese stage performance that started in the early 17th Century. A lot about kabuki has changed over the years, but a lot hasn’t. This is pretty surprising considering the root of this traditional art and all the cultural changes Japan experienced in the past few centuries. So let’s take a look at one of Japan’s most iconic forms of entertainment.
A Very Brief History
Knowing the history of a topic like kabuki can really help you understand why it is the way it is. A lot of tradition in kabuki comes from the very beginning.
Kabuki was started by women. Well, one woman in particular. Izumi no Okuni started pulling together groups of women to dance in the riverbed in Kyoto in 1603. They would perform dances and act out dramas, and they quickly gained popularity. Their popularity could have stemmed from the fact that many of them were prostitutes. If you know anything about the government at the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate, you know they were incredibly strict. They were all about censorship and shutting down any sort of illicit behavior, so they forbade women from performing in these early kabuki plays.
After that, the performers changed from women to young boys. People still enjoyed watching boys dance and perform, as they had the same femininity and grace as the ladies. They also enjoyed paying for their services afterwards, just as they did for the women. Once the government found out the boys were prostitutes as well, they banned their performances as well.
The art was eventually picked up by adult men. Even though the men would also engage in questionable behavior with audience members who were willing to pay a pretty penny, the government apparently cared less because they were men. This is how kabuki was changed from being all female casts to all male.
Knowing the Audience
Kabuki was always meant for the commoners. It never had to compete with noh plays(the ones with the creepy masks), because those were generally thought of as a higher art to be enjoyed by the aristocrats. It’s only real competition was bunraku(puppet theatre), and honestly, it always lost. People absolutely adored bunraku plays, and many plays started with puppets before they were transferred to the kabuki stage. Isn’t it interesting that kabuki almost completely overshadows bunraku now, despite the fact bunraku was more popular? Funny how these things work.
Because the stories were written for commoners, many of the plots focus on commoners or places they would be familiar with, such as the red light district. Occasionally, you’ll get the classic stories like those from The Tale of the Heike, or great stories of bravery and loyalty like Chūshingura. Stories that would entertain the everyday cityfolk.
These commoner roots also show in the costume design of kabuki plays. The people putting on these plays were, obviously, actors. At this time, actors were basically outcasts in society. Japanese society had a rigid class system, and your class would determine most things about your lifestyle: where you could live, where you could go, and what you could buy, to name a few. Certain products, including certain types of fabric, were only available to certain classes. So if a play had a samurai lord in it, there would be no way a kabuki actor could purchase the proper material to make a samurai lord costume. They had to show rank in a different way. So they made the higher ranking characters have more gaudy, extravagant clothes.
The Rapid Westernization of the 20th Century
As you learn more about Japanese history, you’ll learn about the major cultural shift that happened at the turn of the century. This actually ended up being a good thing for kabuki. Japan was trying to modernize(read here“westernize”), and a lot of foreign influence was coming into the country. Considering they had spent the last 150 years cut off from the Western world, it was a lot to take in. A lot of people turned back to their Japanese roots in an attempt to keep their traditions and not have them washed away in this flood of new ideas.
During this time, kabuki started becoming more of an upper class sort of entertainment. This is despite the fact that most performances took place in the red light district thirty years prior. People turned to it as a traditional Japanese art, and it gained popularity.
After World War II, kabuki began to really struggle. During the American occupation, a lot of Japanese tradition was pushed aside in favor of adopting Western ideals. That worked great for the economy, but less so for kabuki. It’s only been in the last few decades that kabuki has regained popularity, and part of that comes from foreign interest in an exotic art.
What Makes Kabuki So Cool?
Basically everything. I love watching kabuki, and here are a few reasons why.
I already talked a little about how gaudy the costumes can be, but honestly, they are really fun. There’s a bit of a misconception(thanks to a certain popular film with a lovable white balloon robot) that kabuki actors use masks. That’s actually a tradition of noh plays. But the marks on a“kabuki” mask are what define them as“kabuki.” Each character type has a specific way of doing their makeup, and the makeup is all done by the actors themselves. As they learn and train to become actors, they also learn the different makeup patterns so they can transform themselves into a warrior, a villain, or even a princess. The most iconic is the red streaks worn by many warrior protagonists.
The clothes are also very fun to see. In one play, a character’s traditional nature was shown by putting him Heian Period court clothes. They were incredibly impractical considering he was guarding a mountain pass, but they certainly got his rank across. It’s also fun to see traditional courtesan outfits, just because they are so flashy and extravagant. You’ll also see great wigs, such as the one worn by the lion spirit in Kagamijishi. Every show has fantastic costume design.
My favorite parts of kabuki are the quick changes. Some actors are famous for being able to change costumes in literally seconds. In one show, the main actor portrays ten different characters and changes costumes 47 times, with many of those being onstage quick changes.
A lot of kabuki stories come from classic literature. If you go see a play, it’s important to know the story beforehand, or you may be very confused. It’s important to note here that kabuki is performed in the same Japanese as it was in the Tokugawa Period. You may think this is like Shakespearean English, and you’ll be okay if you know Japanese well enough. Really, it’s more like Chaucer English. Speaking as a learner of Japanese for over six years, I can usually only catch a few bits and pieces of the dialogue. Even native speakers will follow along with the story in the program provided.
But it’s good to know the stories not just to follow along, but because they are really good stories. You can experience so many emotions while watching a kabuki play. You can feel the tension and excitement as the forty-seven rōnin finally corner the man who killed their lord. You can feel the heartbreak and pain as Oiwa realizes she has been poisoned. You can feel the relief as Benkei and Yoshitsune finally manage to make it past the mountain guards. These are not light stories, and sometimes you just need a nice drama. Kabuki is definitely a good choice for that.
The Fight Scenes
Along with the actual stories, the fight scenes are amazing. They have fun sound effects, such as hitting wood blocks to make the sounds of swords hitting. The fights are definitely stylized, so if you’re into realistic stage combat, you will be disappointed. But this is where the acrobatics come in. Warriors will perform all sorts of backflips and rolls. Sometimes they even fly. I even saw a play where one actor threw a sword about thirty feet over the audience and another actor on stage caught it. It’s not realistic, but it sure is fun.
If you’re a movie buff, or you have a friend who is one, you know the names of most of the actors in Hollywood off the top of your head. American actors can get pretty high up on the totem pole of fame, but I doubt any of them have been declared Living National Treasures. In Japan, a Living National Treasure is someone who has done much to preserve the traditional culture of Japan. There are quite a few kabuki actors on that list(eight, currently). Since kabuki has regained its popularity recently, and is exclusively Japanese, these actors, and all kabuki actors, work hard to maintain the traditions of the art.
There are a few main families that carry on the kabuki tradition. Becoming an actor is a bit of a process. Sons born into a kabuki family begin their training at a young age. If there are no sons who want to go into kabuki, the families will sometimes adopt someone in to carry on the tradition. Once the actor is trained and ready to debut, he will pick a name for himself. The name they pick usually goes along with the type of actor they want to be(such as onnagata). This leads to actors having names like Bandō Tamasaburō V. There wasn’t necessarily a string of Bandō Tamasaburōs(in fact the fifth was adopted into the family), he was just the fifth actor to take the name.
Since I mentioned onnagata, and you might have been wondering about perhaps the most iconic part of kabuki, let’s talk about them. Onnagata(女形) are men who portray women in kabuki. They are famous for being elegant and graceful. Women liked onnagata because they seemed to really understand how women felt, and men liked them because they were pretty. Everybody wins.
The idea of men portraying women in performances is not inherently Japanese—China has their equivalent of onnagata. But one idea that seems to permeate many East Asian cultures is the appeal of feminine beauty in men. This can be seen in Japanese media(I mean, have you seen how pretty some of those anime boys are?), and in the style choices of quite a few young men in Japan. This is one part of kabuki that truly is unique, and scholars have said it is one of the aspects of kabuki that defines it and sets it apart.
If you’re in Japan, and you have a chance to see a kabuki play, take it. Learn the story before you go, but please go. Kabuki is fun and energetic and interesting. You’ll never experience anything like it.
If you aren’t in Japan, you can still check out some shows. In the 80s, there was a whole film series made of famous plays with English commentary to help you follow along. If you’re lucky, your library might have a couple of them.
Kabuki is a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture. It’s one of the few arts that actually became more dedicated to tradition through the major cultural changes in recent Japanese history. You’re not going to find anything like it anywhere else in the world.
Also, they just made one based on One Piece. If that doesn’t sell it to you, I don’t know what else will.
Ever wonder what life as a Japanese student & Japanse school is like? Me too. I’ve never been one, but I’ve heard about it from a lot of friends. Today I’ll tell you about it, at least, from secondhand experience.
Obviously, not every student in Japan has the same experience in school. But it’s also not quite how it seems in that shoujo manga you read in high school. School in Japan is pretty different from what you might be used to if you live in the U.S. (or anywhere that isn’t Japan, really). A cool thing to keep in mind is that Japan’s school system is consistently ranked as one of the top in the world. I just checked and the first list I saw had it as number two under South Korea. So what is this incredibly effective education system like for its students?
The Japanese school year goes from April to March. There is summer break in August and winter break around New Year’s with a few other holidays, but Japanese kids attend a lot of school. They can attend school up to 250 days a year (Americans do about 180).
The grades are divided into three major blocks, similar to the U.S. Elementary school is six years, middle school is three, and high school is three. College is just about the same as anywhere else in the world, with four year bachelor’s degrees and higher degrees offered.
Another easily recognized part of the Japanese school system is the uniform. Most middle and high schools require students to wear uniforms. When in uniform, students are expected to act a certain way, as they are seen as representing the school. Some schools can be pretty strict on what students are not allowed to do while in uniform. This doesn’t stop a lot of kids though. I still remember seeing some of the bolder girls hitching up their skirts super high (they are usually knee length), and some boys eating as they walk down the street (this is really rude in Japan).
Elementary kids are easy to spot even without uniforms. The first year kids usually can be seen in big groups with adorable yellow hats. A lot of elementary students are also required to carry the same type of backpack, which are normally color-coded for boys and girls.
School can be close enough to walk to, but for many older students, it requires a commute. I once talked to a girl who had an hour and a half commute each way when going to school. There’s not really school buses, unless you count the ridiculously cute ones shaped like pandas and puppies, but those are only for the young children. Many students take public transportation. I’ve even heard of some who would have to commute so far to school, their parents rent them an apartment closer instead.
When students arrive at school, they exchange their shoes for slippers that they only wear in the school building. This follows with the Japanese custom of removing your shoes before you step inside.
You might wonder why a student would have to commute so far to school. For private schools and most high schools, entrance exams are required. A better score will get you into a better school, and that improves your chances of finding a good career. The high school you attend is almost as important as the college you attend, and it can make a big difference in whether or not a college or job will be interested in you.
Sometimes students will make it into fairly prestigious high schools that are very far away from where they live. They would rather make the commute than give up the opportunity to go to a better school, so they ride the train and the bus to go.
Everyone I talked to hated these entrance exams. It’s a lot of pressure to put on really young kids (we’re talking middle schoolers, here). The college entrance exams are just as bad. Kids spend hours and hours every week to prepare for them, because the highly ranked universities can be very competitive. But from what I heard, if you got into a top university in Japan, you were set for life. I guess it’s a lot of pressure at a young age, but it can help them figure out their lives and find success very early on.
The Daily Lives of High Schoolers
Most of my friends were either in high school or fresh out when I asked them about school. And from what I can tell, high school is pretty intense in Japan.
As is true with most secondary educations, the curriculum is fairly rigorous. Students have several classes during the day, including the usual subjects like math and history. They also take English, which has given many foreigners the impression that all Japanese people speak English. This isn’t quite true. While there are many who are more than proficient with English, most Japanese people remember English just about as well as Americans remember their high school Spanish classes. They can say “Hello” and “This is a pen,” and that’s usually about it.
After classes, most high schoolers participate in extracurricular activities. Sports are fairly popular (especially baseball—boy do they love baseball), as are music groups and other clubs.
While club activities might be the end of the day for many, some students will continue on to cram school in the evening. Cram school is to help students study and prepare for entrance exams. It’s almost like tutoring, but a little less personal.
Most students return home after dark and continue to study for a couple more hours before going to sleep and starting the cycle over again.
Free time is very limited in high school, and some schools will go as far as forbidding their students from dating or getting jobs while they are in school so they can focus on their studies. From what I can tell, that’s pretty extreme, but it isn’t unheard of.
High school sounds pretty scary from an American perspective, but there’s a reason Japan has one of the highest ranked education systems in the world. Japanese people are very intelligent, and the level of discipline they reach with their school system is something incredible.
Obviously, no education system is perfect, and Japan still has its flaws. This system probably works great for some students and not so great for others, but isn’t that always how school is? The education system is an important part of any culture, and understanding Japan’s schools can help us understand more about the Japanese people.
If you want to learn more about Japanese culture (and work on improving your Japanese as our American school year starts up here) be sure to check out our daily podcast!
By John Dinkel
While I would love if people learned Japanese through our comic, this article will hopefully give you a couple more help and direction in learning the best language in the world.
Manga, or Japanese comic books used to be part of a deep nerd culture. Only the “Otaku” would watch series such as Naruto, Inuyasha and Fruits Basket. With the emergence and growth of Japanese culture and maybe partially due to the power of manga and anime, learning Japanese is now more on the minds of language learners more than ever. I mean who in their right mind would not want to speak the same language as their heroes and heroines? I know I always wanted to watch the original Power Rangers and read Bakuman in its original language. Maybe even make sense of that odd naming scene in the beginning of the first book.
How to Start
If you want to learn Japanese and use Manga or Anime, there are a number of things you should think about. The first of which is what manga or anime do you want to learn through? Why does this matter? Unless you actually want to speak like Zaraki Kenpachi or Naruto I would shy away from things that will only confuse you, and the people that will hear you speaking. Make sure to pick something that is close enough to reality, and close enough to normal conversation so that you don’t sound too odd. I mean image who you would sound if you learned Japanese by learning to speak from John Wayne or Cardi B.
Here are a few manga that I recommend that are really close to real life.
And basically anything in the Nichijou category is really safe. While you can try something a little more edgy, like Boku no Hero Academia or ShamanKing, a lot of the vocabulary words aren’t going to help you in the long run. Just make sure to used a small amount of common sense when choosing a title.
Another thing to take into consideration is picking something that is you level. Shooting too far out of you language level will only limit what you will be learning. Try to read thing that you understand 75% or more of the vocabulary.
Thing to pick up on
The first and easiest thing to do when listening or reading Manga/Anime is to pick out vocabulary words. When you hear or read you don’t know make a note and then decide if the word is actually something that you use. An easy way to think if you will use it or not, think if you have used it in your past week, if not, put it away for a later date.
Another key to learning vocabulary is making sure to use it within 24 hours. Kemushi-chanthe youtuber is famous for this wonderful rule. Make sure you can use the new word, potentially around native speakers, within a 24 hour window.
Subtitles. We all need them, and at the same time quietly hate them. While the euphoria of being able to watch Parasite and interpret for my wife was a fun experience, making the most of subtitles can be tricky. This is often because translators often translate the meaning of the sentence rather than the direct translation. Take a word like くそwhich can be translated at $h!t or crap. I have even heard it being used as S0B or the f-bomb. However, that translation is relative to the translator. They often take many liberties which can be troubling, so first make sure you look up the word or grammar point.
A couple sources to do that are sites like Jisho.org&Discovernihongo.com. Sites like these can tell you the many ways something can be used and said.
When you think “How did they say that” it is a good rule of thumb and try using it right away.
Something awesome about Manga and Anime, is you sometimes get how Japanese people actually sound as opposed to how textbooks make them sound. For example, when learning how to use ‘ing’ in Japanese it is often taught as Baseて+いる, however, it is often spoken as Baseて+る; cutting out the い entirely. This is something that you would only get from reading manga or talking to a native and being really good at listening. This is important to know and can make you sound a lot better when you learn how Japanese people actually say them.
This may be the common method of learning Japanese though Anime. Take a character whom you like from a anime or even J-Drama (Jin is amazing) and practice imitating them. A great way to do this is try repeating what the person is saying immediately after they say it in the exact same way. I used to heavily imitate a roommate of mine until I could fool people over the phone. Even now I listen to people whom I like the sound of until I can voice their way of speaking. This is great for intonation and learning where to place emphasis.
Read and Repeat
Go through a book and highlight everything word you don’t know, but only look up the words that you may have many gaps in what you are reading, and if a word pops up more that 3-5 times go ahead and look up the word. Ignore all other words. Then after reading that section re-read the section or book and see how much you can understand. Then, read the section again after filling in all words you didn’t know. You will find your brain is able to take in something new each time you read it. This is great with dense wordy manga like Deathnote or even Full Metal Alchemist. I commonly do it with books. A great place to start with that is My Individualismby Souseki if you are really into that kind of thing.
Read the book outloud and then make voices for each person. Really. This method is used by actors and many language learners. Then after you feel you have a scene down read it with a native speaker. Focus on what/how they say it and if possible record you reading aloud. This will force you to improve and help you learn with something called “full body response” which helps you learn words faster. While you may feel kinda silly it is a legit method that I have personally used.
Pick a common manga or Anime and become the interpreter or translator. When I worked as an interpreter we would often listen to Ted Talks (Takafumi Horieis awesome) and practice simultaneous interpretation. One interpreter would listen, while the other interpreted. After 20 minutes we would switch and give the other one notes which consisted of 2 good points, a Vocab list, and 1 major improvement.
In the same fashion, many language learner find it very helpful to translate the content they are reading. To do this, take a common manga or anime like One Piece and write on a piece of paper the translation of everything on the page. For any words you don’t know mark an X in their place and translate the chapter or page. Then open the English or native language text and see how a professional did this. I recommend a widely accepted translation of a particular text. The more popular the better. That way you get a really nice clear translation. The more obscure, the worse less likely you are to get a good translation.
Once you see how you measured up against a professional, take note of what you wanted to learn, add it to your daily use list, and then switch. Take the native language text and translate it into Japanese. See if you can articulate yourself into speaking like that particular character. You will find this method very stressful and labor intensive, but it is also a great way to mold your mind to start thinking in Japanese.
While these are the main methods, there are many other methodologies for learning through manga and anime, the biggest thing is to actually learn and enjoy it. Language learning isn’t and should never be limited to the classroom. Japanese is much bigger than any stupid textbook but is something that happens through life and learning. Make sure you use what you love and learn. Japanese is a wonderful and lovely language that has connected me to fantastic people and dear friends. It has literally changed my life. If you want to really learn a language you need to try and not be afraid of failure. You are going to make mistakes, but those pitfalls and slips are the stepping stones to true language acquisition.
As you look more into Japanese history, especially the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), you will quickly come across a lot of woodblock prints. These are generally referred to as ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or pictures of the “floating world.”
So what is the “floating world?” That’s what I’m here to explain today.
What The Word Means
I’ve already said that ukiyo (浮世) is generally translated as “floating world,” but there’s a bit more to it than that. There’s actually a Buddhist term that is a homonym (it is written differently, but is pronounced the same), that is used in a very Buddhist sense. It is used in the phrase ukiyo hanare (浮き世離れ), which can be translated as “free from worldliness.” This is a huge idea in Buddhism, as the goal in this religion is to become unattached. Attachment leads to suffering, so it’s better the separate yourself from all attachment to reach enlightenment.
The word ukiyo is actually kind of making fun of this idea. Ukiyo generally referred to the entertainment and pleasure districts in cities. This is where one would go to find something to drink and spend some time with the prostitutes. Considering the Buddhist term talking about separating oneself from worldliness, this place was pretty worldly. But the term still makes these districts seem very distinct, and we’ll get back to that in a bit.
First, we should go over a bit of history to understand these red light districts a bit more. The Tokugawa Shogunate (or the bakufu, as everyone calls that government) was well-known for being incredibly strict. Society at the time had a very rigid structure. Samurai were at the top, of course. Then people were ranked in this order: peasant, artisan, merchant. (We always remembered it with the word SPAM) If this order is confusing, notice how the people at the top are people who make things. Samurai are government officials and make laws. Peasants make food. Artisans make things, but they have to use what someone else has already made. Merchants only sell. They contribute nothing to society, so they are at the bottom.
Now imagine where an entertainer would fall in this hierarchy. I’ll tell you. They don’t.
People like actors and prostitutes weren’t even on the social structure. The government did not like them. The bakufu ended up being incredibly strict with people of this status, and you can see it with the censorship of many bunraku and kabuki plays. The government also didn’t want prostitutes wandering around wherever they wanted, so they were confined to specific pleasure quarters. This kind of bottled all of them up into one place, which adds to the idea of these areas being a separate world. The most famous of these quarters was Yoshiwara (close to present day Asakusa in Tokyo), with large districts in other major cities like Osaka and Kyoto.
Different Forms of Art
The “floating world” is probably most famous for being depicted in woodblock prints. There were also paintings, but it was mostly prints, ukiyo-e. Prints were very popular at the time, as they could be sold to the masses. Even if the print you wanted was by one of the incredibly famous painters, you could still get it for a reasonable price because it was not the original copy.
These woodblock prints would depict famous kabuki actors, geisha, or even just scenes of city life (usually with beautiful girls involved), and they were very popular. If you’ve seen a woodblock print that is more of a city scene, you’ve seen what is called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or a picture of the “floating world.” Some of these paintings can become more explicit, but a great number of them aren’t. I’ve heard a lot of people who learn about ukiyo-e recently think they are all like this, but they aren’t. The genre is much wider than that.
The “floating world” was also depicted in writing. One of the most famous authors was Saikaku, who is known for his satire. He wrote about different people associated with these pleasure quarters. He liked to make absurd social commentaries through his writing, and using satire was a way he avoiding being censored by the bakufu.
There were also depictions of the “floating world” in bunraku and kabuki plays. Many of these stories were centered around men who visited brothels or fell in love with courtesans. Bunraku and kabuki plays were written for the common people, who were the ones visiting this district. It’s not surprising to see stories centered around that part of the city.
The whole idea of the “floating world” is that of illusion. When one goes to these different quarters, they enter into another world. It’s a way to escape their real life and spend time not being judged by the people around them. Of course, there’s the illusion that the beautiful woman they are paying to spend time with actually loves them. But the “floating world” can kind of be compared to escapism.
The people who frequented these areas the most were the chōnin (町人) or the artisans and merchants. City life had to be somewhat mundane, and many marriages at the time were arranged for financial or social gain. The “floating world” was a place they could go to ignore life for a little bit. And, from what I can tell, it was actually kind of expected for most men. Even samurai who were not allowed to go to places like that would still don a disguise and frequent it.
So when you find a woodblock print of a city scene to look at, remember that it probably isn’t a good depiction of reality. But it is a good depiction of where people wanted to go to escape their normal lives.
People that are learning Japanese, or any other language, often fall into bad habits unknowingly. These bad habits can hurt your language learning. After years of hard experience, teaching language and learning two (Japanese and Korean) I have fallen into enough pitfalls to know my way around the major ones. In my years of experience, there are 5 main pitfalls and problems that beginning language learners should know about in order to avoid.
Not having a clear purpose
The word in Japanese for ‘purpose’ is 目的 (Mokuteki) which is written by using the kanji (characters) for ‘Eye’ and ‘Target.’ Your language learning should be just that, your eye centered on the target. Often, people lose the reason for which they are studying. The overarching goal for why they are learning the language is key to making sure you don’t give up. Moreover, it keeps you from wandering into things that would otherwise hinder your language learning; there is no reason to learn medical terminology if your Mokuteki is to do sales or speak fluently.
While there is something to be said about ‘fleshing out’ one’s language ability, straying too far from your language goal will often do more harm than good. Make sure you are doing those things that will help achieve your language learning purpose, rather than studying something that may be really cool or just interesting.
Jumping ahead of yourself
Before you study Kanji you should know your Hiragana and Katakana, Before you learn to read the newspaper you should most likely learn basic conversation, and you should know the basic structure of the language before you begin writing prose.
It is often very frustrating to keep studying and growing one step at a time when you feel like you could just take on the world. However, I wouldn’t recommend being a patent translator or acquisitions and mergers interpreter after only a year of study. When you jump ahead of your current language capability you grow. But when you jump too far into the deep end you can actually do more harm than good. Making sure you are doing things in the right order is a struggle and a challenge, but knowing when something is only going to mess up your later acquisition is an important skill.
Not setting measurable goals
People often get discouraged when they don’t achieve the results that they want right away. That or people set astronomically high language goals and don’t clearly define what that means. I cannot count how many times I have had someone tell me they are going to be conversational at Japanese in one year. This is a completely doable and seemingly sound goal, but what even does it mean to be ‘conversational?’ Do you want to be able to talk about everything or just about your weekend? Heck, I have been speaking Japanese now for almost 8 years and I still cannot talk about cars, computers, or the tea ceremony. Then again, I don’t really care too. That falls outside of my preview as a conversationalist.
Setting goals are best done on the SMARTER system in my opinion.
Specific: You know exactly what you are trying to accomplish.
Measurable: How many vocabulary words, grammar points, and Kanji do I need to know?
Attainable: See Point 2
Relevant: See Point 1
Time-bound: By When, how often, and for how long are you going to study?
Evaluated: reporting back to yourself how effective you were after the specific and measure time.
Recorded: literally written down, somewhat where you can preferably see the goal.
We currently live in a microwave generation, where supposedly everything can be done with google translate. While there are a number of useful Japanese and English language apps, dictionaries and resources, people often rely too much on these tools. When you literally google every single word in an article, you may be relying too much on your digital memory.
Instead, try front-loading, which is a process of pounding your brain with vocabulary words in attempts to memorize large quantities. That and using mnemonics, which may be a little better short-term crutch, as it actually helps you memorize the new words.
Trying to be perfect
This is the biggest mistake someone can make in my opinion. Unfortunately, this is something that the university system inherently tries to promote. Being free to make mistakes and actually try to write, read, or speak a language is foundational to the development of an individual’s linguistic capacity. It is through mistakes that we learn a language. Experiences, memories of failures, and allowing ourselves to fail are the important things someone can do to learn a language. Literally, the only way someone is going to do, is by letting them do.
Why is it that when a child is learning how to speak we allow them to speak, and then correct them without persecution, but when an adult is learning a language, failure is rewarded with having to lower their grade? In today’s language learning society, we are so obsessed with perfection we get lost in the thick of thin things. I have met people who have passed the JLPT, or have a degree, yet cannot string together a well-executed paragraph or idea in that target language. This is the epitome of the current method’s idea of ‘perfection.’
When I worked as an interpreter, I met many other wonderful linguists. I often asked for tips and tricks from the more senior and obviously talented individuals. I asked them what separated them from the other people who were learning the language at the same time. Their response was almost uniform. Every single one of them imitated native speakers and put themselves out there to be corrected by them. If you want to really master a language, do that. It is only by embracing mistakes that fluency can be obtained.
Learning Japanese or any other language, falling into bad habits is often part of the process. Being able to recognize the pitfalls and either avoid them or get out of them is what really separates the good from the amazing.
By Jessica Hutchison
One of the biggest festivals of the year is Tanabata. This one is celebrated all over the country during the months of July and August. Traditionally, it was held on the seventh day of the seventh month, but calendars are all messed up from what they used to be. Most places now interpret the date to be closer to August 7th and celebrate it then.
Summer is a season of festivals in Japan. Every region has its own, and there are even a few the entire country celebrates. From firework festivals, to Gion Matsuri itself, there’s a lot of parties you can go to, if you do a little bit of research into the area you visit. Of course, there are festivals all throughout the year, but the more popular ones seem to happen when the weather is a bit nicer.
So if you had your hopes set on celebrating Tanabata, and you think you missed it, you actually didn’t! And if you don’t know what Tanabata is, stick around and you can learn about one of Japan’s traditional festivals.
The Story of Tanabata
Like all old stories, the story behind Tanabata has many variations. But there’s a lot of things everyone can agree on.
Basically, the story is about two star lovers. Not like “All Star” sports people. The characters are literally stars in the sky. Orihime was the daughter of the guy in charge of the sky, and she was really good at weaving cloth (her name is “Weaving Princess” so that skill set follows). She was so busy with her weaving that she became worried she would never get married. Her father ended up introducing her to Hikoboshi (“Star Boy”) who was a cow herder. The two fell in love and got married.
As most newlyweds, they were really distracted and in love, so they kind of let their responsibilities go. Orihime wasn’t doing much weaving and Hikoboshi let his cows roam wherever. As punishment, they were separated by the Amanogawa (“River of Heaven” or the Milky Way). They are allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And that is what Tanabata celebrates.
How Tanabata is Celebrated
Tanabata has a pretty typical festival vibe to it, with a few distinct features. Like most matsuri, you’ll see ladies walking around in traditional yukata, or summer kimono, and the streets will be filled with all sorts of colorful decorations.
The main thing with Tanabata is that people will write wishes on colorful pieces of paper, then tie them to bamboo. Sometimes they even try to make their writing more poetic in the spirit of the festival.
Every region celebrates Tanabata a little differently, but Sendai is the place to go for Tanabata. The festival in Sendai is famous throughout Japan, and usually takes place from August 6-8. If you are in the area and looking for something fun to do, definitely check it out! It’s one of the more colorful and exciting festivals you can go to.
Japanese Festivals in General
Overall, Japanese festivals are a blast, and if you get the chance you should definitely go to one. Like Hanami, it’s one of the times you get to see a lot of the local people relax, socialize, and just have fun. There’s food and games everywhere, and it’s super easy to make new friends.
The different regional festivals are definitely something to look into as well. You can find super unique ones like the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) up in Sapporo, or the Awa Odori (Fool’s Dance) in Tokushima. You can also go to more generic ones that are held at different times depending on the city, such as firework and harvest festivals. Just because they are generic, doesn’t mean they aren’t super fun.
The relaxed atmosphere of festivals can be really nice for foreigners. It’s totally okay to try on a yukata and go walking around to see the different stands and decorations. People were actually really excited when I wore a yukata to a matsuri, so don’t be afraid to try it! Have fun playing the games (my favorite is Kingyo Sukui) and meet some new people. Also, before you go, try to do a bit of research so you can really appreciate what the festival is about. You can find a lot of explanations online, and I found that locals where more than happy to explain the traditions behind the smaller, local festivals.
So if you’re in Japan during a matsuri, check it out! And have fun with it! Matsuri are one of my favorite things about summer in Japan.
If you’d like to learn more about some fun Japanese traditions, check out my Hanami article. Also, if you want to keep improving your Japanese, be sure to tune in to our daily podcast.
One of the most recognized symbols of Japan is the cherry blossom (Sakura 桜). You can find cherry trees all over Japan, generally lined up along paths and rivers. During most of the year, you may wonder why there are only cherry trees planted on these paths, but when spring comes around, it’s pretty obvious.
In Japan, Sakura are the symbol of spring. It isn’t really considered spring until they bloom; despite having many other domestic flowers that also bloom in spring. Sakura are a Big Deal and are seen as something unique to Japan. The Japanese love celebrating things that are special to their country.
Following the Sakura
If you’re in Japan during the spring, you can’t miss them. The news literally follows the Sakura as they bloom from Okinawa on up, usually starting in late March and continuing through April. Each region’s Sakura are unique and beloved by locals. In Okinawa, they are known for being really pink. But when I saw them in Hyogo prefecture, they were almost completely white.
Sakura are considered to be quintessentially Japanese, so naturally, there is a lot of tradition and culture concerning them. The most popular—and fun—is the tradition of hanami (花見) or “flower viewing.”
This is exactly what it sounds like. A group of family, friends, or coworkers get together and go see the flowers. Sakura only bloom for about two weeks before they fall, so it’s a pretty busy week in the areas where the flowers bloom.
People bring blankets and picnics, sit under the trees and have a party. Generally, alcohol is involved. What better way to enjoy nature than totally wasted, right? Overall, it’s a pretty fun and lively experience, and it’s one of the biggest parties the country has all year. Seriously, it’s probably only outshined by New Year’s.
There are a lot of popular places to go see the Sakura—castles and famous parks being at the top of the list most of the time. If you’re visiting during this time, you can easily find lists of the top places to view Sakura, or you can just ask locals when you get there. If you want to go to a more popular place, you should know that a lot of people will go out really early to claim a spot. It’s like those small-town parades in the U.S. where people leave lawn chairs on the side of the road. If you want a spot, you’d better go early.
However, you can enjoy the cherry blossoms without clamoring for a spot in a big park. Sakura are planted everywhere in Japan.
When I was there in April, I didn’t live close to a big city (the closest was Kobe and it was over two hours away). But even though I was in the country, there was still a nice river path with Sakura planted along it.
It was a quiet area, and I only ever saw a couple of people sitting under the trees to eat lunch. I even stopped one day and ate bentos under the trees. It wasn’t as much of a party as the bigger areas tend to be, but it was still nice to sit and enjoy the flowers.
A Japanese Tradition
Learning about this tradition might seem a bit new to a lot of you. Why would anyone want to go outside just to look at flowers?
Japanese people have always had a profound respect and interest in nature. This is another Shinto thing, and it has become ingrained in their culture. According to Shinto, everything has kami (神) or “spirit” in it. Rivers, mountains, trees, and everything else in nature is basically sacred. It’s important to respect and appreciate the world around us, and the spirits that reside in everything.
Taking a minute to sit outside and just enjoy being in nature is something I think all of us can learn to appreciate, if we don’t already. The tradition of hanami allows people to be outside, enjoy nature, and enjoy the company of people they care about.
Sakura’s Place in Japanese Culture
Cherry blossoms, in particular, have a special place in Japanese culture. I’ve already talked about how they are inherently Japanese, which is a lot of their appeal. But they also hold a lot of symbolic meaning in Japanese culture.
Sakura are mentioned constantly in classical texts (such as the Tale of Genji), classic poetry, and pretty much every genre of Japanese literature and media up to the present day. Sakura are used to represent not only spring, new life, beauty, and grace, but also impermanence, loss, and death.
The Beauty of Impermanence
The thing is, the blossoms bloom and they are beautiful. But after a few short days, they start to fall. Japanese people consistently find beauty in impermanence. Seeing the cherry blossoms is one thing, but it gives the experience more depth and meaning when you know they will be gone in a week.
This idea of impermanence is very popular in Japanese media and has been since literally the oldest Japanese stories. If you look at the Tale of Genji, which is, of course, our go-to when it comes to classic literature, Genji can be easily compared to Sakura. He is beautiful and wonderful, but he dies very young (and like 15 chapters before the book ends). His life is fleeting, but everyone enjoys being around him while he is alive. He doesn’t even actually die in the book. It happens in between chapters. But the point is that he was impermanent, despite his perfection.
This idea is also seen in modern Japanese media. Have you ever seen a Japanese movie with a happy ending? That’s because the normal Western “happily ever after” doesn’t really satisfy a Japanese audience. They want it more open, or even kind of sad. They want to see impermanence and loss reflected in the story.
And that’s why they love Sakura so much. The flowers are absolutely stunning and completely temporary. Hanami is a big deal, because you have to go out and do it, or you will miss the experience completely.
So when you are in Japan during these months, don’t miss it. Whether you want to go party it up in some awesome park in Tokyo, or wander the quiet river paths of a tiny town, go out and see the cherry blossoms. If you aren’t in Japan, take a moment to step outside and enjoy a bit of nature. Maybe it’s blisteringly hot. Maybe it’s snowing or raining. Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll be able to find something to appreciate about it.
If you’d like to learn more about Japanese culture, check out my article on Kawaii Culture. You can also check out our daily podcast to learn more about Japanese culture and how to improve your Japanese.
As you start to learn more about Japan and its modern culture, you will probably run into one word a lot: kawaii.
Chances are since you’re on the internet, you’ve already heard this word. Maybe even in real life you’ve seen a gaggle of middle school girls in animal-themed hoodies walking around and pointing at things saying “Kawaii desuuuu~” (emphasis on the “u” sound). I know I have.
But what does kawaii mean? And more importantly, why does it come up so much with modern Japanese culture?
The actual word kawaii (可愛い) means cute. This is not to be confused with kowai (怖い) or kawaisou (かわいそう) which mean very different things—”scary” and “pitiful” respectively.
Since about the 70s, the idea of cuteness has become so popular in Japan, an entire culture has been developed around the idea. This is known by scholars (yes, real scholars) as “Kawaii Culture.” The basic idea is that cute things are attractive and desirable. Everyone wants to look, act, and be cute. And everything around you can and will be cute.
You’ll hear a lot of Japanese people coo this word about pretty much anything. I even had some Japanese friends tell me that my given name was very kawaii, which surprised me as “Jessica” is probably one of the most common American names ever. Also, I’m not sure how a name can be cute, but they thought it was.
There’s a lot of different ways to be kawaii, so I’ll break them down for you by category.
Writing and Texting
As far as I can tell, this is kind of how Kawaii Culture started. Girls started writing in big bubbly letters to try and come across as more cute.
Honestly, we do this in America as well. Remember in middle school when every girl would have the exact same super bubbly handwriting? Most of us got past that phase because it’s hard to read when all the letters look like circles.
Japanese girls today will usually try to keep their handwriting cute. It works though. They have the most adorable handwriting. And it certainly gives off a young, feminine vibe when you read it.
This idea of cute writing has also extended into texting. The biggest example of this is emoticons. （‐＾▽＾‐）
When you text in Japan, you have to use emoticons. You have to. If you don’t, people will think you’re mad at them. (´；Д；｀)
There are literally thousands of different emoticons you can use, and your phone will come preloaded with a ton of them. If you add a Japanese keyboard on your English phone, it may even automatically give you some too. Mine did. （◎0◎）꒳ᵒ꒳ᵎᵎᵎ
The key here is learning what the different faces mean. I try not to use them unless I can tell exactly what vibe they are giving off. There are some good online databases to show you different types and the emotions they portray, so if you wanna use emoticons, get looking. ╭( ･ㅂ･)و
This is probably what comes to mind when most people think of Kawaii Culture. You might think of different fashion styles such as Harajuku or Lolita. While those certainly do fall under the category of Kawaii Culture, it’s a bit more widespread than that.
Most Japanese girls try to dress cute. Oversized sweaters, shapeless dresses, cute bows, and ribbons are all common in everyday Japanese fashion for girls. From what I could see in Japan, most girls tried to look cute before looking sexy. Sure, they would show a lot of leg, but they would usually pair tights or leggings with really oversized sweaters or shirts.
I loved shopping for accessories in Japan because of Kawaii Culture. They always had really cute hair clips with bows on them. I kind of felt like a five-year-old when I wore them, but a really cute five-year-old. A lot of high school girls go for fun, colorful hair clips. That’s probably because they have to wear uniforms, and hair accessories are an easy way to express yourself when your wardrobe options are minimal.
An interesting thing in Japan is that men aren’t really afraid of having cute things too. I saw so many men with pink phones. It’s kind of a little thing, but can you think of a guy in America having a pink phone? It doesn’t really happen here, yet it was totally normal there. They wanted cute pink phones too. I also saw a lot of guys carrying around purses. Not “man purses,” I’m talking legitimate Gucci purses, definitely designed for women. Kawaii culture is definitely more female-oriented, but men have their place there too.
Speech and Mannerisms
This is a pretty stereotypical category of Kawaii Culture. A lot of girls will talk and act in a cute way. This usually means talking in higher voices (though some of them just have high voices) and using different language patterns to show how adorable they are.
Girls will often use different mannerisms with their body language too. One I noticed was that girls tend to turn their feet in when standing. While an American woman might take a stronger standing position, her feet turned out and maybe her hip popped, Japanese girls don’t do that. Standing with your feet in is a bit more vulnerable-looking, and it looks cuter. I’m not sure if it was subconscious for the girls I observed in Japan, or if girls just want to be cute so they stand like that.
When you go shopping in Japan, you’ll notice there’s a lot of cute things you can buy. Lots of notebooks and phone cases will have flowers or animals on them (mine has cats on it right now). You’ll find a lot of pinks and pastels with ribbons or lace on them. You can see this on office supplies, kitchenware, home decor, pretty much anything you want to buy. I even got a coin purse shaped like a bear.
Another thing you may notice while out shopping is the vast amount of adorable characters. You can often get entire sets of kitchenware or office supplies with a specific character on everything. The characters are designed to be cute and sellable and are often animals like cats or bears (Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and Rilakkuma). Disney and Studio Ghibli are also cute, so you will see a lot of those characters around too.
Folklore and Culture
Shopping isn’t the only place you’ll find characters. Every town in Japan has its own mascot (My favorite is the one for the Osaka Airport. It’s so cute.) and you’ll usually see it in the train station or around town. You can also see characters as decals on trains or set up in front of shops to draw people in.
My favorite example of this was when I went to Gobo in Wakayama Prefecture. In the train station, there was a picture of an adorable little girl dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. Later, we were biking around and we ran into this truly terrifying old statue of a woman (she had black paint running from her eyes in the worst way). I asked who the woman was and my friend informed me it was the town’s character. This horrific statue was meant to be the same girl as the one in the train station. I realized that if they could somehow make that statue into some sort of cute character, they could do it to anything.
And boy did they. A lot of Japanese folklore has been made cute by Kawaii Culture. A good story about this is when I learned about kappa. A kappa is a river demon that drowns children and eats their intestines. Sounds adorable, right? I didn’t think so either. But I kept seeing really cute depictions of Kappa everywhere. So I finally asked my Japanese friend if kappa were cute or scary. She answered without hesitation that they were cute. And that’s because Japan has managed to portray even a river demon as an adorable character.
So the moral of this story is that everything can and will be cute in Japan. From your clothes to your name, you can be absolutely adorable, even if you are a terrifying river demon. And that is Kawaii Culture.
This is a really fun part of modern Japanese culture, and it’s one of my favorite things to bring into my own life. But you don’t need to walk around in an animal hoodie and call everything “Kawaii~” to enjoy this part of Japanese life.
One of my favorite things to use is Japanese emoticons. They also make your texting more exciting. I also like using cute stationary when I send letters, just because it’s more interesting to get a letter covered in cute pictures of ducks. You can get yourself a fun phone case and maybe some colorful pens to use at school or work.
Just because you’re an adult (or a man), doesn’t mean you have to avoid cute things. The Japanese certainly don’t.
If you want to learn more about modern Japanese culture, check out my articles on Japanese holidays or learn why Japanese people wear masks. You can also learn more about adjectives like kawaii and how to use them while speaking Japanese by checking out our daily podcast.
Have fun learning more about Japan, and stay kawaii~! (^ _ ^)/
Photo Courtesy: Gordon Cheung, Flickr.com
By Jessica Hutchison
By now, hopefully, you have read my article about Samurai and Western misconceptions we have about them. Samurai are very popular and super interesting. There’s no way I could cover everything cool about samurai in that one article.
So here we are. Talking about samurai, again.
But we’re going to focus on one samurai in particular: the shogun.
You’ve probably heard of the shogun before. He’s basically the top dog of the samurai. He’s in also in charge of Japan. How does that work when there’s an emperor? Fear not. I am here to explain.
How The Shogun Got His Street Cred
It’s important to note that the shogun was really only in charge of Japan while the samurai were around. That means the shogun has a 700-year history (12th to 19th centuries) while the emperor has been around for thousands of years.
The time of the shogun may have been short (if you can call 700 years short), but he definitely had some solid credibility.
Basically, there was a really big war at the end of the 12th century called the Gempei War. There were disagreements over who should take the throne, and the Minamoto Clan was victorious over the Taira Clan. The Minamoto Clan was stationed in Kamakura (pretty far away from the current capital because that’s where the Taira were), and as thanks for saving the throne, the Minamoto leader was given the title of “shogun.” This was Yoritomo, the first shogun, and he set up his military government in Kamakura.
The word shogun can roughly be translated to “War Commander” or “Military Leader.” And that’s exactly what he was. Samurai had a hierarchical system. Normal, everyday samurai would report to superior officers, who would eventually report to daimyō (provincial lords), who would then report to the shogun.
Even though the emperor was still around, the real power was with the shogun.
But an important part to becoming a shogun was being endorsed by the emperor. Yoritomo obviously managed to do that, as did his successors. Even though there were big shifts in power that led to the capital moving and the shogunate changing—such as when the Ashikaga Shogunate took power after overthrowing the Kamakura Shogunate—the new shogun still had imperial endorsement. One major time this did not happen was with Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi, as mentioned in my samurai article, was one of the three unifiers of Japan. In the late 16th Century, he had pretty much pulled the whole country together and tried to become the shogun. He was denied by the emperor on the grounds that he was a commoner (which was true). Although many expected him to be given the title, he never was a shogun.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu took control after Hideyoshi’s death, he was endorsed by the emperor and began the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shogun may have had all the real political power, but no one could become a shogun without a go-ahead from the emperor. It’s an interesting balance of power.
Why The Shogun Was Only Top Dog For a Little Bit?
The government ran by the shogunate (called the bakufu) was well-known for being increasingly strict. This became very apparent during the Tokugawa Shogunate, as many things were censored and controlled by the government.
On top of that, Leyasu had made some enemies when he came to power. After all the fighting settled down, he decided to divide up the land into domains and assign lords (daimyō) to look over each one. The more he liked them, the closer to the capital (Edo, or Tokyo) he put them. That meant his enemies were basically banished to the far ends of the country.
To add insult to injury, he set up a system known as alternate attendance. This meant daimyō had to keep a permanent residence in the capital. Their primary wife and heir would stay in the capital, and they would alternate living one year in the capital and one year in their domain. If a daimyō lived close to the capital, this wasn’t really a problem. But if you lived in the far reaches of Kyushu, this was very expensive for maintenance and travel. Needless to say, there were a lot of unhappy daimyō who already didn’t like the Tokugawa Shogunate.
These unhappy guys all banded together, forming a group with the slogan “sonnō jōi” or “revere the emperor, expel the barbarian.” Their main idea was to overthrow the shogun and reestablish the emperor as the guy in charge. As for the barbarian part, this was all happening when America started to push for Japan to end its “Closed Country” policy. The Americans were the barbarians if you didn’t catch that. The shogun had started leaning towards opening the country, and these guys did not like that.
There was a lot of fighting, and the rebels won. The shogun was overthrown, the samurai class abolished, and the emperor was reinstated as the supreme ruler of Japan.
Eventually, they decided to let the barbarians in. They made a Prussian-style constitution, so they must have had some contact.
The Shogun Today
There is no shogun today. There hasn’t been one since 1868. But he was still very important to Japanese history. In order to understand why Japan made the political decisions it did during this time period, it’s important to understand that it was lead by a military government. You can also see the influence of the shogunate in more modern history, especially during the early 1900s, when Japan was almost constantly at war. Although nationalism certainly played a role in Japanese imperialism during this time, you can see the influence of samurai culture and loyalty in the everyday soldiers that fought in these wars.
Even though the time of the shogun is over, his influence has carried into modern Japan. Maybe less so, nowadays. But it will probably always be there, as it is distinctly Japanese, and they love stuff like that. A lot of people get the shogun and emperor mixed up. Hopefully, this clarified the role of the shogun a bit.
Japan has an emperor. Who exactly is he, and why is he important? Today, I’m going to try and explain that.
The concept of an emperor is pretty foreign to most Americans. I mean, America has had some pretty close ties to monarchs before, but we all know that ended pretty badly. We could try to compare the office of President to the emperor, but they really aren’t the same. Besides, Japan also has a Prime Minister, which is much closer to the idea of a President.
So let’s dig in with some history on Japanese emperors.
How The Emperor Got His Street Cred
Emperors became a thing in Japan a really long time ago. They took the idea from China, because, let’s be real, they took a lot of ideas from China. One of the earliest really famous emperors was Emperor Jimmu (or Jim, as I like to call him). He’s kind of credited with making Japan its own country.
The fact that these emperors popped up was really important for Japan to become a thing. Before, the island was full of smaller clans and tribes that kind of kept to themselves. Then the Yamato stepped up and said “Hey, we’re in charge, and here’s a record we had commissioned that proves it.” And everyone went with it, because how do you argue with something someone wrote?
The thing that was written was the Nihon Shoki, one of the earliest records of Japanese history. Of course, it was probably skewed in favor of the Yamato, but it’s still seen as a very important part of Japanese history. The Nihon Shoki also gave the Yamato clan all of their credibility, claiming that they were descendants of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.
If you don’t know about Shinto, Amaterasu is kind of a big deal. She’s the main deity of the religion.
So, by claiming to be related to her, the Yamato gained all sorts of respect. China did this with their emperors too. Nothing like being divine to give you power over people.
The fact that they were related to Amaterasu is really important, guys. The Imperial Family always showed that they worshipped Amaterasu piously. One generation had a princess who decided to build a really nice shrine for the Goddess. Ise Shrine was built, and there has always been someone in the royal family who has been assigned to take care of it. It is said to hold Amaterasu’s sacred relics, such as her mirror. Ise Shrine is an imperial shrine, and is closely associated with the Emperor and his family.
For most history, the Emperor has claimed to be descended from a literal goddess. This definitely affected how people viewed him. I mean, if you knew the leader of your country was a deity, wouldn’t you look at them a bit differently?
This all changed at the end of World War II. During the war, people still believed he was divine. That led to some pretty strong nationalism. When General MacArthur showed up, that changed. The emperor was forced to renounce his divinity, which caused a pretty big stir in the country.
Nowadays, Japan still has an emperor, but it’s definitely more of a constitutional monarchy sort of position. The National Diet and the Prime Minister have the real power in the government.
Why The Emperor Was Only Sometimes Top Dog
I can actually only think about maybe two times in Japanese history when the emperor had any sort of real power. Of course, the early emperors (and empresses) did, because they were the government at that point. They were more of traditional monarchs who would rule completely. But that didn’t last.
The Heian Period definitely had a different view of emperors. During this time, the emperors were very young and would only rule for a few years. While they ruled, they were basically controlled by their families and the retired emperor (because they were eight-year-olds). A retired emperor would have a lot more freedom, while still having a lot of political sway.
So instead of being ran by the emperor completely, it’s more like things were ran by whatever part of the court was influencing him.
Then things really changed when the shogun became a thing.
This is when the emperor was kind of pushed aside, because now the shogun was in charge. The shogun was a military leader, and Japan was ruled by different shogunates from the late 12th century through the late 19th century. That’s 700 years of no one caring what the emperor has to say.
That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially in the late 1800s when foreigners (Americans) started knocking on the door with heavily armed warships. A lot of people decided it was time the emperor be in charge again, so they overthrew the shogunate and put the emperor back on top. This is called the Meiji Restoration.
The emperor kept his power until, as I said before, after World War II. Besides being forced to renounce his divinity, a new constitution was created that made him more of a figurehead. And that’s how it’s been ever since.
The Emperor Today
Japan is the only country today who refers to their monarch as an “emperor.” He’s still really important to the culture, and people follow the imperial family just as closely as any other royal family. The emperor’s birthday is even a national holiday.
The current emperor has caused quite a stir lately, as it just became legal for him to retire. There’s been talk of him retiring as early as 2019, which isn’t surprising when you consider his age. Emperors have not been allowed to legally retire for quite some time, so this is a big step for Japan.
If the emperor retires, it will actually start a new era in Japan, as the emperors since the Meiji Restoration have all named their eras. Of course, Japan goes with the traditional calendar we use, but they will also refer to years by the imperial names. So this year is 2018, but in Japan it could also be Heisei 30 (because this is the 30th year the Heisei Emperor has been on the throne). If you’re traveling to Japan anytime soon, it is probably a good idea to learn these for important years in your life, such as when you were born. Some people are more traditional and don’t care for the western dates. Even the currency has the mint dates in these imperial dates.
Hopefully, this has helped you understand a bit more about Japan’s emperor. If you’d like to learn more about Japanese history, check out the post “Japanese History in About Six Minutes” where I break down all of the time periods into little bite-sized pieces.
Photo by the Japan times: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/09/national/history/as-abe-gears-up-for-wwii-anniversary-statement-will-emperor-weigh-in/#.W0BXvthKgWo
By Jessica Hutchison
Recently in Japanese media, supernatural beings have become pretty popular.
Well, I say recently, but they’ve really been popular for the last few hundred years. Japan has some amazing ghost stories, and it is well known for them. If you don’t believe me, remember the movie The Ring? What about The Grudge? They are both based on Japanese stories and those are just the modern examples.
Ghost stories were also widely popular in bunraku and kabuki plays back in the day. Some of them were so popular, you can still see them today (my personal favorite is the classic Yotsuya Kaidan). But the thing is, Japan has a very different view on demons and ghosts and all those other things. That’s what I wanted to talk about today. So let’s start with the most general term for creepy things: yōkai (妖怪).
This term is super broad, and is translated into English as “ghost, apparition, phantom, specter, demon, monster, and goblin.” That’s a lot to take in. All of those words mean something different in English.
If I were to explain what a yōkai is, I would probably use the word “spirit.” Those first words on our long list of definitions (ghost, apparition, phantom, and specter) sort of give the idea that they are a deceased human who has not moved on. That’s not true. Yōkai were never human (with some rare exceptions).
A better Japanese word for our idea of “ghost” is yuurei (幽霊). In Japan, these are human spirits that have not moved on to the afterlife. They generally appear as women in white with long, dark hair. Pretty much just like those girls from The Ring and The Grudge.
There are also many different types of yōkai. Japan has a lot of folktales that talk about very specific yōkai types, such as kappa and tengu.
So our next word in the definition list is “demon,” which also doesn’t quite fit. In Western culture, demons are evil. There is no question about it. But in Japan, yōkai aren’t inherently evil. Sure you have some that will try to kill you or ruin your day, but a lot of them can actually be pretty benevolent. The real word for the Western idea of “demon” is akuma (悪魔) which literally has the character for evil in it. Just to make sure.
Even the Japanese term oni (鬼) which is widely translated as “demon” does not give the impression of an evil being. Oni are more like ogres that live off in the woods. If they get in your house, it’s not great, but they won’t try to drag you down into hell anytime soon. They are generally red and have horns, so it’s easy to see how they could be confused with the Western concept of “demons.”
Monsters and Goblins in Japan
The last definitions, monster and goblin, just don’t fit the idea of yōkai. A monster under your bed might actually be similar to a yōkai, but Frankenstein’s monster is nowhere close to the same thing. “Monster” is much too broad of a word. “Goblin,” on the other hand, is far too specific. It’s also a little too fantastical, as we mainly associate goblins with high fantasy.
So, overall, a yōkai is sort of like a spirit. There are many types of them, some good, some bad, and honestly, I don’t think we really have a word in English that can quite describe them. They appear in Japanese media all the time, most notably with the popular show Yōkai Watch. If you really want to get a good idea of what a yōkai is, I would recommend the show Natsume Yuujincho. The show is full of yōkai, and it’s clear that none of them are what we would refer to as “demons” or “ghosts.”
Now, moving along to more creepy terms, let’s get into a subcategory of yōkai: obake (おばけ).
I think I actually heard this term more than yōkai when I was in Japan. Which is kind of funny because an obake is just a yōkai that can shapeshift. This could be because obake or bakemono (化け物) are just more popular.
The most well-known of these types of yōkai are probably kitsune (狐)—foxes. In Japanese folklore, there are three animals that can shapeshift. Foxes can do so easily, cats with a bit more effort, and finally tanuki, but with more difficulty. Most stories with foxes shapeshifting involve them turning into beautiful women and seducing men. It kind of seems like an excuse for infidelity to me, but those are the stories.
There are also plant-based obake. The most famous of these are called kodama (木霊). If a tree with a kodama is cut down, it’s bad news for whoever cut it down. Kodama like to curse people who mess with their trees. Some really cute kodama show up in the popular movie Princess Mononoke, but don’t let their cuteness fool you.
Speaking of mononoke (物の怪), let’s talk about that subcategory of yōkai.
I did research, guys, and a lot of people seem to just lump mononoke in with yōkai. But that doesn’t quite work. They aren’t the same thing.
What I was told (by a guy who studies the Tale of Genji for a living) is that a mononoke is a vengeful spirit. But it’s not necessarily someone who has died. Sure, it can be a dead spirit that haunts whoever they don’t like and makes them sick, such as the main spirit in Yotsuya Kaidan. But it can also be a living spirit.
The example from the Tale of Genji is probably the clearest. Genji is a player. He goes around seducing women left and right. One lady he woos is Lady Rokujo. She finds out about Genji’s other women and becomes so jealous and angry that when she falls asleep, her spirit leaves her body. It then straight up strangles one lady while Genji is with her. It also makes both of Genji’s wives ill, and eventually kills them too.
So a mononoke is a person, usually a woman, that has become so angry or jealous she becomes a spirit to seek vengeance. If you’ve seen Princess Mononoke, think about that in context with San’s character. It makes a lot more sense why they called the movie that, doesn’t it?
There’s this really creepy idea in lots of Japanese stories that living people can become supernatural. It’s creepy, but also really cool.
There are classic stories, such as the jealous woman who transformed into a snake (which would make her an obake). There’s another story where a monk became a “demon” after turning to cannibalism.
In a more modern, but subtle example, the movie Twilight Samurai has a sort of transformation. One character eats the ashes of his daughter and almost immediately becomes more violent and angry. It’s not stated blatantly, but an action like that in many traditional stories would result in the character being transformed into something more like a yōkai than a human.
Japanese Yokai in Literature
Japanese storytelling has included the supernatural for literally over a thousand years. The terms for these different beings are specific and nuanced. It can be hard for us to understand the subtleties when we look at these terms from a foreign perspective, but cultural things like this can be so much fun to learn about.
Learning about classic cultural things like this can also help you learn more about modern Japanese culture. So don’t be afraid to dig deep and learn about Japanese storytelling, folklore, and legends.
If you want to get more into classic Japanese stories, check out the folktale I retold—Kachi Kachi Yama—on our blog page. Also, stay tuned for more retellings of classic folktales and much more discussion on Japanese storytelling.
Photographer: Conor Bodily
By John Sorenson
Making travel plans in a foreign country can be downright terrifying. You never know what you’re getting yourself into without having experience yourself. It can be difficult to get a straight answer to the most basic questions, such as “What is the best airport to fly into?” “How do I get to my connecting train?” and “Will anybody be able to speak English?” In order to alleviate some of the stress concerning one of the basic questions that just about everyone has when traveling, I’m going to address all of the ins and outs of lodging in Japan.
From April to August last summer, I returned to work in Japan. My goal was to travel every single weekend I had available and take the last three weeks to explore all the places that I couldn’t manage to travel to on weekend trips. Having lived and worked in Japan for a few years prior to starting college, I came back having a solid knowledge about the Japanese language, the Japanese culture, and the day-to-day intricacies of living in Japan. Yet, with all my experience in country, I had only really traveled a handful of times, always staying with friends or work acquaintances. I never really had experience finding safe and inexpensive lodging. As I began to explore my options, I realized that I had no clue how a ‘capsule hotel’ worked, what the hell a ryokan was, and what to expect in Japanese hotels in comparison to American hotels. Well, it was time to get educated. Over the next five months I travelled across Japan, staying in just about every type of lodging available – from $20 capsule hotels to five-star ryokans. From the rural countryside to the endless city streets that make up the vast Tokyo cityscape, I’ve experienced it all. And here is what I learned.
How to begin selecting your lodging:
Before you can decide between a capsule hotel, a ryokan, a Japanese hotel, an American-esc hotel, or even an Airbnb, there are a few important points to consider. It’s very important to consider things such as proximity to trains and events, as well as safety precautions and the ability of staff to speak English. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to start by basing your lodging off of these first few points and consider how they will play into the rest of your travel plans. Often, you can narrow down much of your search by eliminating options that don’t fit within these parameters.
-Proximity to a local train or subway station:
Train stations are the epicenters of life and excitement in most parts of Japan. In just about every small and large city, train stations are located at the heart of population traffic and commerce. A lot of the time, you’ll find the most restaurants, stores, and events surrounding the train station, so it’s just a good place to be. Many cities have more than one train station, so as long as you are close to one train or subway station, you basically have access to the rest of the city. It’s much easier to jump on a train or subway to cut across the city than walking or riding buses, and much cheaper than the fare for a bus or cab. On top of that, if your travel plans involve traveling to more than one city, you’ll have to lug your luggage however far it is from your lodging to the train station. I’ve made the mistake of choosing lodging miles away from the station and quickly regretted it as I trudged through the summer heat while carrying all of my belongings on my back. Even if you are willing to take cabs everywhere, being close to the train or subway station is usually just a great place to be.
-Proximity to events you plan on attending:
Another option is to choose a hotel closer to any events you plan on attending during your stay. If you plan on staying in only one city and most of your plans involve one particular location, it would probably be smart to stay in a hotel close to that event. This can save so much time and hassle if the event you want to attend is expected to have high attendance. Firework shows, festivals, and holidays such as golden week can be madhouses when the event ends. While you might think that an hour walk or a long wait for a train isn’t a problem, there are many factors that aren’t always considered such as standing body to body against an entire massive body of humans attempting to work their way onto a train at eleven o’clock at night. Not to mention that the weather is often unpredictable; I’ve had to walk five miles through a small typhoon, completely drenched, after a firework festival in Hiroshima last summer – definitely not the most enjoyable experience.
We’ll address safety concerns in Japan in a future article and include the link here when it’s available. But for the time being, I’ll just briefly mention that for the most part Japan is a very safe place. You’ll want to follow the standard precautions that apply to traveling internationally, but as long as you’re doing that, Japan is very safe. However, just to air on the side of caution, it’s always smart to choose lodging that is on well-lit roads in the more populated parts of town, even more so if you’re drinking late at night. Again, just be aware and follow normal safety precautions.
Alright, I’ll be honest, I haven’t ever stayed at a place that didn’t see me, a 6’3” blue-eyed white dude, and didn’t first try to communicate with me in some level of broken English. After staying in a number of places, it’s easy to tell how well prepared the reception employees are to speak English by seeing how frantic they get when they see me walking in through the door and their obvious relief once I begin speaking Japanese. That being said, as frantic as some reception workers may seem, and as broken as their English may seem, almost every form of lodging has someone on staff who can communicate… more or less. So, if you don’t speak Japanese, you can get by without problem in most cases. However, it never hurts to double check online before making a reservation.
Different Forms of Lodging
-Capsule Hotels: Photographer: John Sorenson
It’s probably safe to assume that you’ve at least heard of the capsule hotels in Japan. When I talk to people about staying in a capsule hotel, they expect some kind of uncomfortable tube of some sort, or a two-foot wide five-foot long box that fits into a giant dresser where humans take the place of tube-socks. I mean, they aren’t entirely wrong, but it’s not as bad as one would expect. Plus, there is a wide range of capsule hotels to choose from with varying levels of comfort.
I’ve stayed in capsule hotels maybe seven or eight times last summer. They’re a great option if you’re traveling on a budget. A lot of places can get down to around $25 a night. And if you don’t plan on spending much time in your lodging and just need a place to crash for the night, this might honestly be your first choice. The price can range – I’ve stayed at the cheapest places that were around $25 and also some of the nicer $65 capsule hotels that are more along the lines of small individual rooms.
Photographer: John Sorenson
Here’s what you need to know before staying in capsule hotels:
Almost all capsule hotels are individual rooms that are segregated by gender; often males and females will be located on completely different sides of the building and aren’t allowed into the other’s quarters. So, if you’re traveling with friends, family, or intend to bring someone back to your room for the night, you might be better off staying in a regular hotel room.
The cheaper capsules are about four-feet high, three to four feet wide, and about six and a half feet long. If you are very tall, very large, or claustrophobic, capsule hotels aren’t for you. I managed to enjoy my capsules even being 6’3”, and they do offer a space to sit up and read or chill. These capsules are stacked two capsules high on either side of the hallway which runs down ten to fifteen rows. So, you’ll either need to bend down and crawl into the lower one or use the steps they provide to hop into the capsule above.
Capsule hotels always have shared bathrooms and showers. Typically, the hotel will have enough space allocated so that it doesn’t get too crowded, and they are often be quite clean. I’ve also seen quite a few with nice public baths. But if you don’t want to share facilities with a group of people, you may want to avoid capsule hotels.
They’ll have an outlet or two where you can use a phone charger, but don’t plan on charging your laptop, tablet, and phone all at once.
Most are equipped with complimentary Wi-Fi.
You’ll need to keep luggage with the front desk, where they’ll keep it safe. So, you won’t have super easy access to your things unless you keep them in a small bag. I always kept my backpack with me, which had all of my clothes and necessary items, but that’s just me.
The cheaper capsule hotels won’t have air conditioning in the capsule itself, so it can get a bit warm if you stay during the summer and close the entrance completely.
The nicer capsule hotels, like the one I stayed at for $65, had a bed and a small living space including a table and more outlets. They also have really high-quality facilities.
Main points to consider:
– Probably the cheapest option. – Small but comfortable individual spaces.
-Communal facilities. -Great for travelers who only want to sleep, wash up, and leave.
-Won’t have quick access to luggage. -People taller than 6’5” should avoid.
-Not ideal for large individuals. -Light sleepers may be disturbed by neighbors.
At first, I was a bit hesitant to stay at ryokans. When I asked Japanese friends what ryokans were, they described them as old-fashioned Japanese-style hotels. They mentioned that they may or may not have Wi-Fi and may or may not have air conditioning. Because of the way they portrayed ryokans, I got the impression that they weren’t well equipped and weren’t aimed at serving the modern traveler. However, once I stayed at my first ryokan, I realized that this was completely incorrect. After doing a little more research and experiencing ryokans in a few different areas, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are just as well equipped as the majority of hotels in Japan and have just about everything a modern traveler needs – including air conditioning and Wi-Fi. And the best part about staying in a ryokan is the Japanese-style experience. If I could recommend any type of hotel to a friend, I’d say that ryokans are my number-one pick.
I’ve stayed at maybe five or six ryokans last summer. A few of them around the $35-$45 price range, and a few that were over $200 a night. The $35-$45 ryokans provided a small room (by American standards) that were equipped with a futon, small table with cushions to sit on, a small TV (only Japanese channels), and a personal sink. The bathroom was shared by three or four guests and had a male and female individual shared bath (used one at a time, but shared by a few rooms), which were basically personal onsens that were large and beautiful. In my experience, the best bathing experiences in any type of hotel have always been in ryokans – grade A top notch. The futons were always super plush and extremely comfortable in my experience.
The times I stayed in a $200 per night ryokan have stuck out as a highlight of the trip by itself. It was one of the most remarkable parts of visiting a few of the areas. Nothing I’ve experienced in hotels so far has equaled these. So, what’s the big deal? While the rooms are quite a bit bigger, much of the room remains the same; similar futons, small table with cushions to sit on, same small TV. But just about everything else was unparalleled in quality. They provided complimentary nine-course dinners that featured fruits and vegetables that were locally grown and prepared in artistic styling, a wide assortment of fresh sushi, and an overwhelming amount of washoku, or Japanese style dishes. This was all served in a personal dining room that occupied only friends or family and the staff members that brought in the courses. The staff of the ryokan were extremely professional and provided excellent service. Each of the three ryokans of this price range had onsen both indoor and outdoor, hidden by surrounding trees, bushes, and beautiful rock features. Two of the ryokans had peaceful gardens that visitors could walk through. One of the ryokans had a personal bath located on the balcony of the room that overlooked a small river and a grove of trees. Simply a dream.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in ryokans:
Best choice for those wanting a very Japanese experience.
Futons are to be expected. They are very comfortable, but if you have a hard time sleeping on the floor or need extremely cushiony bedding, you may want to avoid ryokans.
You’ll need to familiarize yourself with basic Japanese manners and indoor conduct, so you don’t offend anyone and won’t cause a disturbance to the other guests. It’s not that difficult, but don’t stay at the ryokan if you don’t intend to be conscientious of your conduct toward your hosts and other guests.
Some have public baths without privacy, so if you can’t handle being naked with members of your same sex, you might want to make sure to see what kind of bathing facilities are offered.
Never wear shoes on the tatami mats inside your room.
Complimentary Wi-Fi in most cases.
Air Conditioning and heating units are standard in each room in my experience.
Main points to consider:
-Best choice for the full Japanese experience. – Expect to sleep on futons.
-Wide price range for most any budget. – Classic style for modern traveler.
-Learn Japanese manners and indoor customs. -TV is small and in Japanese.
I spent the majority of my travels in Japanese hotels. I consider Japanese hotels to be American-style hotels that are run by Japanese companies. This basically means that guests are offered a bed (not a futon), a large TV with some channels in English, and personal bathrooms that include a toilet, sink, shower, and tub. These Japanese hotels are often a bit smaller than American hotels, but very comfortable for those expecting an experience similar to Western standards. Price range generally starts at $35 for a basic individual room to $300 for the more expensive hotels. I’ve never stayed at a hotel for over $100 a night and usually stayed around the $35-$50 range. Really great quality all around.
There isn’t much to say that’s unique about Japanese hotels. I’ve never had a bad experience in even the cheapest ones.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in Japanese Hotels:
Expect a smaller version of American/Western hotels.
All the standard amenities.
Personal bathroom including a toilet, sink, bath, and shower.
Main points to consider:
– Great options for those who just want a standard hotel room.
-Many rooms are very inexpensive. -Very private compared to other options.
American Hotels in Japan:
Alright, so in the locations with a high number of tourists there are usually a few American brand-name hotels such as Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and Hilton. I’ve stayed at two of these because the people traveling with me were new to Japan and were worried about Japanese hotels. They offer large rooms, large beds, large bathrooms, and everything you would expect from an expensive American hotel. In my opinion, they are super overpriced and price gouge you at every available opportunity. They don’t even offer complimentary Wi-Fi after you spent hundreds of dollars to stay there. Cheap bastards. The only real reason to stay here is if you really don’t want to get out of your comfort zone and are willing to pay out the ass for it. Great quality, very comfortable, but just not worth it. I mean, you’re staying in Japan – so stay in Japan!
Here’s what you need to know before staying in American hotels in Japan:
Lots of TV channels in English.
Main points to consider:
-I can’t find any super valid reason to stay in these, but that’s just me.
At the latter end of my travels in Japan, I stayed in a handful of Airbnb. If you’re not familiar with Airbnb, the idea is that you rent out an apartment or house that is owned and operated by locals rather than businesses. I’ve found that Airbnb in Japan is fantastic in larger cities where tourists are expected to visit… with the exception of Tokyo. Small cities and rural areas, not so much. The advantages in Airbnb are usually found in the decent price range and the amount of space provided. Cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima offer great prices for 2+ visitors – I paid an average of $35 a night per person for my friend and I to stay in two large apartments and a home. The locations were excellent and were furnished with large TVs, couches, a kitchen area, bathroom, and whatever else is usually expected at an Airbnb. All three of our hosts spoke English (or could at least type in English) and were very courteous. All three experiences were excellent.
I wouldn’t recommend staying in an Airbnb in Tokyo. The options available in Tokyo are more expensive than cheap hotel rooms and are often shared with other people (the owners) with a lot less space. Many of the reasons why someone would want to use Airbnb are inapplicable in Tokyo. Rural areas and small cities/towns have similar issues; it’s harder to find places that offer an entire apartment for a reasonable price range. But for the usual tourist locations and larger cities, I would highly recommend staying in an Airbnb.
Here’s what you need to know before staying in Airbnb Japan:
Hosts generally speak English.
Typically have great amenities.
Best for tourist areas and medium/large cities.
Tokyo and rural areas or small cities don’t offer many of the advantages of Airbnb travel (listed above).
More responsibility – make sure to clean up after yourself.
Main points to consider:
-If space is a consideration, this is a great option. -Hosts often speak English.
-Great for experiencing Japanese housing. – Typically inexpensive.
This is primarily based on personal experience, so your experience may vary. Hope this helps and happy travels!
By Jessica Hutchison
Japan has a lot of unique holidays. From O-Bon to Children’s Day to the Emperor’s Birthday, it can be a bit hard for a foreigner to keep track of all of them. But there are a few that the Japanese have adopted from Western culture that we can kind of understand. Kind of.
The thing is, even though the Japanese celebrate a lot of the same holidays that we do (at least, Americans do), they do it in a different way.
So I’m here today to explain some interesting differences in how the Japanese celebrate some familiar holidays.
One thing to note first is that some of these holidays are rooted in Christianity. That’s pretty normal for America and other Western countries, but Japan is far from a Christian country. Most people claim to be Buddhist, and Shinto has a prominent influence too. But not so much with the Christians.
It’s a bit interesting to see how they took these Christianity-based holidays and took the Christianity out of them.
Let’s start with the most obvious Christian holiday.
Are you counting down the days yet?
In the U.S., Christmas is HUGE. Pretty much everyone loves Christmas. If you’re Christian, it celebrates an important religious event. But even if you aren’t Christian, it’s a time to gather with family, relax and take a break from work, eat a ton of food, and–of course–exchange gifts!
Christmas in the U.S. gets a little crazy. Every shop becomes Christmas themed. Airports are packed with people going home for the holidays. You literally cannot go anywhere without hearing all of those Christmas songs that have been on the radio for over fifteen years. People dressed as Santa stand outside grocery stores collecting for charity. Everything is red and green. Everything.
You guys know what Christmas is like. It’s insane. But I’m here to tell you what a Japanese Christmas looks like.
And it’s KFC.
No, this isn’t an ad. This is the truth. The well-known American fried chicken restaurant is in Japan, but it only matters on one day of the year: Christmas.
I have no idea how this tradition started, but boy is it a tradition. Everyone wants to eat fried chicken on Christmas. Some restaurants that don’t usually serve fried chicken will have special ads for their once-a-year fried chicken special. You can get it in any conbini. Fried chicken is everywhere.
Gone are the traditional hams and takeout Chinese food of American Christmas dinners. Bring on the homestyle drumsticks and biscuits (on a side note, KFC biscuits are really weird in Japan). I mean, I’m not complaining. Fried chicken for Christmas has become my new tradition because fried chicken is delicious. But it seems like KFCs in Japan are left practically abandoned every other day of the year.
The other food staple of a traditional Japanese Christmas is Christmas Cake. This is a thing. It’s actually called Christmas Cake.
This is just a basic sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries. It’s pretty tasty, and you can also purchase one anywhere in your desired size. Whether you are feeding your whole family, or you are hanging out in your pajamas all night with your cat, there’s a Christmas Cake for you.
My second Christmas in Japan was probably my favorite. I was teaching an English class on Christmas Eve, and my neighbor had recently started attending. After class she came over to me and my friend and asked us if we had bought a cake yet. When we told her no, she dragged us to the nearest conbini and bought us fried chicken and chocolate cake (all the Christmas Cake was gone by then). It’s really the go-to Christmas feast in Japan.
Another interesting thing about Christmas in Japan is that Christmas Day doesn’t matter. Everything happens on Christmas Eve. I got a nice little shock when I saw the mail guy out and about on Christmas Day. But then again, it’s not really a holiday there. Just a fun day.
It’s also not a family day. It’s a couple day. I once asked a high school girl I met if she was excited for Christmas. She said no, telling me that she didn’t have a boyfriend. Apparently, you don’t really exchange gifts unless it’s with the person you are dating. So Christmas Eve is a big date night in Japan.
Japan still has Christmas decorations all over the place. You can find your fair share of lit trees and tinsel, but it is definitely more subdued. Honestly, people are more excited for New Year’s the next week.
So let’s move on to our next holiday.
It might be surprising that Valentine’s Day is a pretty big holiday in Japan, but it is very different from what we expect.
In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love, whether with your significant other or with your friends. This is the biggest date night in America, and you better book that restaurant in advance if you really want to impress your lady. The stores are filled with pink and red bears and heart-shaped boxes full of mediocre (at best) chocolate. It’s all a bit much, but it doesn’t last long.
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is just half of a process.
Valentine’s Day is a day for girls to give boys chocolate. If a girl is really dedicated, she’ll make the chocolate herself. She gives the chocolate to her friends and coworkers (which is called giri-choco, or obligatory chocolate). But she’ll save that super special, super amazing chocolate for the guy she likes. If she’s already dating this guy, it’s not too nerve-wracking. But sometimes girls will use this chance to confess their love to their crush.
And then they get to wait.
Because a month later on March 14th, White Day rolls around. This is the day where boys can return the gift-giving. Usually they’ll give white chocolate (it is White Day after all), but the gifts seem to vary more. So if Hana-chan confessed her undying love to Yuuji-kun, this gives him a chance to respond.
I think this variation is pretty great. I like that it’s a bit more involved and thoughtful than just throwing heart boxes at each other. Plus, isn’t the idea of homemade chocolate so much more fun? I mean, have you tried Valentine’s Day chocolate recently? Hard pass.
Alright, on to our last holiday.
This one is interesting, mostly because I didn’t expect to encounter it at all in Japan. But I did. Also I have a funny story about Halloween that I’ll get to.
So obviously, this one isn’t huge in Japan. There aren’t really store displays put up, no one trick-or-treats, and costumes don’t happen. It’s a normal day in Japan.
But I was still invited to a Halloween Party?
These are sometimes put on by people who are a bit more aware of American culture, and the ones I went to were pretty fun. There was candy everywhere and everyone dressed up. Japan has a lot of great ghost stories, and seeing a 6-year-old girl dressed as Sadako and running towards you is absolutely terrifying.
Japanese culture festivals in high school often have a sort of “haunted house” room, so they would make those too. They really know how to do creepy, I’ll give them that.
But outside of these rare parties, Halloween kind of doesn’t happen. A friend of mine at one party dressed up as Zoro from One Piece, green hair and everything. He decided to go to the store just to mess with people, and he got the dirtiest looks from people there. Even though it was Halloween, how dare he go to a respectable establishment with green hair?
Trick-or-treating is also not a thing. But here’s the funny story about that. So a while back there were some foreign kids in Kobe who wanted to trick-or-treat. It went alright for them until they accidentally knocked on the door of the yakuza headquarters (basically the Japanese version of the Mafia). The guy who answered the door was super confused and gave them ten bucks to leave.
Eventually, they figured out what trick-or-treating was, and thus the strangest yakuza tradition was formed. Yakuza are all about helping the neighborhoods around them, so they decided to throw a halloween party for the kids in the neighborhood. Every year the kids come by and the yakuza guys will hand out candy. This is real.
A couple years ago they had to cancel it because of some tensions between their factions. In 2017 they said they would cancel it again, but it ended up being a huge prank and they held it anyways. Sometimes I wonder if these guys are even real, but I’m sure we’ll write more about the yakuza in a future article. There’s something to look forward to.
Anyways, these are probably the three most popular American holidays in Japan. One of my favorite things about Japan is how they can take any foreign concept and spin it to become totally Japanese. They keep the spirit of these holidays while adapting them to their culture.
So when these holidays come around again, don’t be afraid to try out some Japanese traditions. I love eating fried chicken for Christmas, and every White Day my husband still manages to surprise me with a present (because I always forget about White Day).
It’s fun to look at holidays through the lens of another culture, and it can create some fun new traditions for you.
Alright guys, buckle up. I’m about to lay down some truth about samurai.
When a lot of people think of Japan, there’s probably a few things that come to mind. Sushi, ramen, and other Japanese food is probably pretty high on the list. Maybe kimonos or school uniforms. Anime and manga, obviously. And I’m pretty sure if you asked about early Japanese culture, most people would talk about samurai.
Samurai have become an icon of Japan, even for Japanese people. And it’s pretty easy to see why. Samurai are really cool. Who doesn’t want to walk around with a sword and sweet armor all day long? They fought in crazy wars and basically ruled the country.
That’s all true. So why is our perception of samurai wrong?
The problem is, samurai were around (officially) from the late 12th century to 1868. That’s 700 years of samurai history. And popular culture has taken everything about samurai during that time period and squished it into one simple stereotype.
The “typical” samurai, according to us, is something like this.
Loyal (even to the point of dying for their lord)
Followed “The Way of the Warrior” (bushido)
Carried a sword
Basically a knight
This sounds like a pretty cool samurai, right? Maybe a little too good to be true?
Let’s start with a little history so we can have some context here.
So, samurai were a thing before the late 12th century, but only kind of. This was the end of the Heian Period, and Japan was experiencing a long period of peace. They didn’t really have any wars to fight, so why would they need warriors? Hired brutes to intimidate people, sure. Those were around. And those hired warriors were the beginning of samurai.
Then everyone in the capital got in a really big argument. A new emperor was crowned and some people really didn’t like that. This argument escalated into what is called the Gempei War (1180-1185). This is when we get our real introduction to samurai.
The war was between two samurai clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. The Taira supported the new emperor, but bad news for them: the Minamoto won the war.
Then the Minamoto created a military government (the shogunate), and put their top dog Yoritomo (in that fancy painting there) in charge. He was the first shogun.
From this point, samurai gained a lot of power, but the country was a hot mess. It eventually broke up into a bunch of little domains ruled by local lords. This was called the Warring States Period (they totally copied China on that name, just saying). This is when the Big Three roll in.
There’s some fancy boys right there. These three guys are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. They’re pretty famous for pulling the country together. Seriously, these guys are so famous everyone calls them by their given names. It’s like if we always called the first U.S. president “George.” Ieyasu even has a time period named after him.
Anyways, the Tokugawa Period lasted from 1600 to 1868, and this is really when the role of the samurai shifted. Ieyasu closed off the country to most Western influences, and the country was again at peace. This meant that samurai were no longer able to be employed as warriors. But all of Ieyasu’s favorite people were samurai.
So instead he made them bureaucrats. And they ran the country and did a lot less fighting, but they were the top of the social structure.
Eventually, they got really poor because there weren’t enough government positions for all the samurai. And then the Americans showed up in 1853 and ruined the whole isolation policy Ieyasu had set up. There was another big argument in the country, and the shogunate was overthrown. This marked the end of the samurai in 1868.
You can see that a lot happened while samurai were around. Japan went through a lot of changes, and, as you might expect, the role of samurai was pretty fluid based on the needs of the country and their influence.
So the list we made at the beginning isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just pulling from different parts of samurai history. A samurai from the Gempei War would live a very different life from a bureaucrat in the 18th century.
Let’s get a better idea of this by breaking down our list.
Loyal (even to the point of dying for their lord)
This is probably the most popular trait associated with samurai. And that makes sense. When you look at old war tales such as The Tale of the Heike, it’s pretty much all about loyalty.
One of my favorite Heike stories is actually about a female samurai. Her name is Tomoe, and she serves under this guy named Kiso. They get in a really bad position where the Taira are definitely going to kill them. He tells her to run away so she can survive (also I’m pretty sure he low key doesn’t want to die with a woman because misogyny is real) and she argues against it. They argue for a while before she leaves. But the important part is that she was willing to die with him. She was perfectly loyal.
(Here she is cutting a guy’s head off.)
These war stories were used as a way to sort of teach samurai what they should be like. They aren’t necessarily true, because they were written to be the ideal. Who knows if Tomoe was real? Whether or not she was, her story was a great way to push the idea of loyalty.
The stories have been popular for centuries, so it makes sense that the ideas presented in them have lasted. Just because the stories talk about loyalty though, doesn’t mean every samurai was perfectly loyal.
Honor is a big idea associated with samurai. Bringing honor to yourself is bringing honor to your lord and family. Samurai would even kill themselves to maintain their honor!
There’s a blog post for another day. Ritual suicide is crazy complicated and has had a pretty lasting effect on Japanese culture.
But back to honor. Sure, you can look at the war stories and find a lot of honorable people. But again, not everyone is perfect. Even if samurai were supposed to be honorable, it doesn’t mean they were. Some of them were kind of terrible people.
A good example of this can be found in an autobiography from a Tokugawa Period samurai named Katsu Kokichi. In his book Musui’s Story, he talks about his entire life, and he’s kind of a jerk. He runs away from home several times, not caring about the consequences. He wastes money and starts pointless fights. He’s pretty far from honorable.
Honor is a trait that can be associated with samurai, but shouldn’t be broadly applied to every samurai. Samurai were people too.
Followed “The Way of the Warrior” (bushido)
Everyone talks about bushido like it’s some grand thing that ties all samurai together. Sure there was a code of conduct for samurai, but it’s been pretty romanticized by Western culture. I mean, how many times have you broken a rule? Maybe you’ve even broken a traffic law (gasp!). There were plenty of samurai who could care less about this honor system.
These ideas were mostly made popular by a book called Hagakure from the Tokugawa Period. It wasn’t really popular when it was written, but it was discovered later and suddenly people were like, “This is it! This is what it meant to be a samurai!”
I’d like to say that earlier samurai were a bit better at following bushido, but all we have of them is buffed out representations in old tales. This is another case where this is the ideal, but it is unlikely that every samurai followed this.
This idea definitely comes from old war tales. Later samurai didn’t have wars to fight, so how could they lead glorious charges or die fighting their long-sworn enemy?
As far as early samurai, they are definitely portrayed as crazy heroic.
Another great Heike story to help show this is focused on the greatest samurai who ever lived (as argued by many). Yoshitsune was the general of the Minamoto clan, and half brother to Yoritomo. The Tale of the Heike has him as the hero, and some of the stories about him are absolutely wild.
(Here he is with his trusted retainer Benkei)
In this one, Yoshitsune and his men are traveling along the top of a mountain. They look down to find the Taira below them, completely unaware. Yoshitsune sees this as a perfect opportunity for an ambush, but the cliff is way too steep to ride down.
While thinking, he notices a deer run down the cliff and make it. He takes two of their horses and sends them down. One makes it, the other does not. He explains to his men that if they ride carefully, they can make it.
His men: Yoshitsune no.
Yoshitsune: Yoshitsune yes.
So they go galloping down the hill. It was so steep that the stirrups of the riders were touching the heads of the men in front of them.
And not a single one fell.
I mean, how ridiculous is that? But heck if is isn’t heroic.
Carried a sword
This point… isn’t wrong. But it is misleading.
The swords you’re thinking of were only carried by later samurai. They would generally carry two swords: an uchigatana and a wakizashi. The uchigatana would be a bit longer and would probably be their weapon of choice.
But later samurai also fought less. Sure there were brawls and disputes to sort out. You could even file official vendettas to legally kill people. But it’s not like they were at war.
Early samurai actually favored the bow as their weapon of choice. The marks of a good samurai were archery and horsemanship. They would carry a small sword, called a tantou, but this was only if worse came to worse and they had to kill themself to preserve their honor. Yoshitune’s tantou, for example, was only 6 inches long and would probably not do well in an actual fight.
There’s also the matter of the iconic samurai armor. Early samurai probably needed it. But for a later samurai, it was probably just to be displayed in their home.
Basically a knight
This is an easy conclusion for a Westerner to draw. Some scholars have warned against trying to fit Japanese history into a European mold. There are definitely similarities between feudal Japan and feudal Europe, but they are not the same.
Calling a samurai a knight, despite the fact that they were both warriors who fought for those above them, is a disservice to samurai culture (and probably to knight culture).
One major difference is that samurai were known for being scholars and poets. Just as fighting was important, so were the arts. During some of the times with the greatest upheaval, some of the best Japanese art was created, as encouraged by the aristocratic samurai class.
The reason we have this image of samurai is because of all those classic samurai movies from the mid-20th century. There’s nothing wrong with these movies (I enjoy them quite a bit actually), but it’s important to be careful with how samurai are portrayed in them.
These films are actually inspired by Westerns, which tend to follow the “lone gunslinger” on his adventure. This translated into having a ronin as the main character. A ronin is a masterless samurai.
Sure, it’s cool to see this guy who’s probably an outcast of society as he becomes a celebrated hero, but it gives the false impression that samurai work alone. Ronin are more like exceptions than a rule.
If you take Yoshitsune as an early example, he was pretty much never alone. He had his men and his loyal retainers with him all the time. Even when he died, he was accompanied by his family and some retainers. He is not a lonely hero.
Later samurai would have worked mostly with their clan. Going rogue was dangerous, and there was always strength in numbers.
This quality is built on movie myths.
As you can see, samurai were a bit more complicated than we generally give them credit for. There is also a lot of depth to samurai culture. Sure the idea of a loyal, honorable warrior clad in armor and wielding a sword is pretty cool.
But isn’t it cooler to know that there’s so much more depth and history surrounding the samurai?
by Jessica Hutchison
A long, long time ago there was an old man and an old woman. They were poor, had no kids, and lived in the middle of nowhere. This is how every Japanese folktale starts so you might want to just commit that bit to memory.
Well this couple had a farm, and every now and then this punk raccoon dog Tanuki-kun would come down from the mountain and steal their pumpkins.
“I’ve had it with this!” The old man says one day after finding several more pumpkins missing. “I’ll catch that punk raccoon dog and kill him!”
So he sets a trap. And Tanuki-kun is kind of an idiot so he gets caught in it.
The old man is still busy with his farm work though, so he hogties the little rascal and hangs him from the ceiling in their house. He leaves to go finish up his field work and probably sharpen his tanuki ax.
Tanuki-kun is freaking out, obviously. He turns to the old woman and says, “Grandma please! I’m sorry! Let me go!” It’s a folktale. All the animals talk, just as a heads up.
“No way,” she says. Not having any of that.
“How about this. You untie me and I’ll make a special dessert only raccoon dogs know how to make. It will be an apology to the old man. As soon as I’m done, you can tie me back up.”
She thinks about it for a bit, then finally decides to untie him.
That was a bad move.
He grabs a stick and beats the poor old woman to death.
He laughs as he chucks the stick away. “Haha stupid old woman!” Then he probably steals all of the pumpkins he can before running off to the mountain.
The old man comes back from the field and is devastated to find his wife dead. But his cries don’t go unheard.
Walking along was Usagi-chan, a rabbit who was close friends with the couple. She walks in to find the old woman dead and the old man crying.
“What happened??” She asks, shocked.
“It was that punk raccoon dog!” The old man wails.
She pauses, thinking things over. Then she slides on a pair of aviators and her voice turns dark. “I’ll take care of this.” Don’t mess with Usagi-Chan.
Usagi-Chan heads up to the mountain where the punk raccoon dog lives. “Hey Tanuki-kun!” She calls, hiding the venom in her voice. “I wanted to collect grass on the mountain. Will you come with me?”
Rabbits are cute and innocent looking, so he agrees.
They walk around and collect grass. Tanuki-kun has a huge bundle of it on his back. As they walk, Usagi-Chan trails behind him. She picks up two rocks and starts striking them together under the bundle of grass.
“Usagi-chan? What’s that clicking sound?” Tanuki-kun asks.
“This is the Click Click Forest,” she lies easily. “It always makes that sound.”
Pretty soon she lights the grass. As it begins to burn, it makes a nice crackling sound.
“Usagi-Chan? What’s that crackling sound?” Tanuki-kun asks.
“This mountain is called Crackle Crackle Mountain. It always makes that sound.”
“Oh, okay. Hey is it hot? Are you feeling hot? Wow it’s really hot!” Tanuki-kun finally looks behind to find himself burning. He manages to get the bundle off, but not before his back is badly burnt.
The next day, Tanuki-kun is resting and Usagi-chan heads on over to his house.
“Pretty weird how that grass caught on fire, huh?” Usagi-Chan has an amazing poker face.
“Sure is.” Also Tanuki-kun is kind of an idiot.
“Well I brought you some ointment for your burn. I made it myself.”
“You did??” Tanuki-kun’s eyes go wide. “Well what are you waiting for! Put it on!”
She starts rubbing some on, but Tanuki-kun is a punk. He yells at her to slather it on thick. And she totally does.
After a bit, the paste, which was actually made from miso and spicy mustard, starts to burn.
“It hurts!” Tanuki-kun cries.
“That means it’s working,” Usagi-chan says with that edge in her voice. She keeps rubbing it in.
Tanuki-kun starts to scream. Soon the pain is too much and he passes out.
Funny enough, the paste actually does heal his burns. Not sure how she did that, but I don’t doubt Usagi-Chan for a second.
Tanuki-kun heals over the next couple days, and Usagi-chan shows up at his house again. Why he continues to associate with her at this point is a mystery. Probably because he’s kind of an idiot.
“I built some boats so we can go fishing!” Usagi-Chan announces.
Tanuki-kun is pretty grumpy, but he agrees.
They walk to the shore and Usagi-Chan shows the two boats she built.
“You’re brown. So you get the really brown one.” She explains, hopping in the less brown one.
“Makes sense.” He gets in his boat and off they go.
“We want big fish so we need to go deep!” Usagi-Chan says.
They get very far out when Tanuki-kun finally speaks up.
“Usagi-Chan, there’s a leak in my boat… There’s a lot of leaks in my boat!” He tries to shovel out the water that is pooling fast. But soon, then boat made of mud completely falls apart.
Usagi-Chan watches Tanuki-kun struggling from her wooden boat.
“Help me!” He cries. He can’t swim. He tries to move over to her boat.
She picks up her oar. “Remember what you did to the old woman?” she asks with that dark tone again. She certainly looks much less innocent looking down at him with an oar raised over her head.
“What??” He sputters.
She takes out her aviators and puts them on again. “This is for her.” Then she wacks him with the oar until he drowns.
And that is the end of the punk raccoon dog.
So the moral of the story is don’t steal pumpkins. Or a rabbit will make your life terrible and then drown you.
Also, it should be noted that this is the tame version of the story. Japanese folktales can be scary.
Whenever you’re working in a foreign country, you’re going to run into different customs. I mean, even America can have some strange business customs.
It’s good to understand the culture you are getting into, not just so you can impress a potential employer, but so you can show that you respect your boss, your coworkers, and anybody you come into contact with in a professional manner.
So let’s dive into some unique aspects of Japan’s business culture.
If you’ve ever gotten a business card in the U.S., it’s pretty anticlimactic. Maybe there’s a little pile of them on someone’s desk. You can grab one so you’re able to give them a phone call later, or, more likely, email them (come on, who calls people anymore?). If they hand it to you, it’s casual and you probably shove it in your pocket and forget about it until you find the mushy remains of the poor paper in your pants after washing them.
If you do this in Japan, you are going to offend someone.
Business cards are very important in Japanese business culture. In Japan, your business card (名刺 meishi) is basically a representation of you and your company. People make sure that they look clean and professional, and that they have the proper information on them. A bad business card can make a terrible impression. So you need to make sure you put some effort into making your business cards.
But having a stylish card is not where this ends. There are also rules of etiquette when it comes to handling a business card. The business card must always be presented facing the receiver. You don’t want them to have to flip it over to read it. That’s just a pain.
You should also always handle business cards with both hands. It’s pretty common in Japan to use both hands to hand someone something, but make sure you also accept business cards with both hands. This shows how important the card is, as the presenter is basically giving the receiver a little bit of themselves. Give a nice bow when presenting or receiving as well. Bowing is always good in Japanese culture.
When you get a business card, don’t just shove it in your back pocket. First, you should look it over for a moment. Show the person that you actually care about them by reading the card briefly. Then you should have a business card carrier that you keep either in a breast pocket or a purse. You can literally get these at the dollar store, but you can get really nice ones for more. Take care of the cards you receive to show that you value your relationship with whoever gave it to you. It’s also nice to have a carrier for your own cards to keep them super fresh. Also say thank you. Bowing and “thank you” are Japanese staples of politeness.
This is something a foreigner could easily mess up, just because we don’t use business cards in the same way. Showing that you understand business card culture can really impress a potential employer.
If you’ve watched anime, or know anything about that sort of culture, you have probably heard the term “senpai.” But what does it mean?
“Senpai” can be roughly translated into “upperclassman” or “senior.” In school, these would be the kids in the grades above you. In a work environment, these are the people who have more experience than you. Whether they are older than you, have worked there longer, or have higher qualifications than you, they know more.
“Kohai” is the opposite of this. It means “underclassman” or “junior.” In school, these are the kids below you. In work, these are people who you outrank in some significant way. You are their senpai.
So why does this matter?
Well, if you are working in a Japanese company, you need to show that you respect this social structure. You’ll need to adjust your speaking patterns based on who you are talking to. We do this a bit in American culture. You talk to your boss a bit differently than you do your neighbor Steve. But maybe you don’t, depending on your company. In Japan, you would talk very differently with Hara-san, who has been at the company for 40 years, than you would with Takashi-kun, the intern that started last week.
Showing that you understand this sort of ranking system within the company can be very impressive, even though it may take a bit to fully understand where you are in the line. Put in the effort to figure it out. It will be worth it to have your coworkers respect.
Surprised to see this on an article about business culture? It’s a bit of a fun tradition.
So, basically, drinking in Japan can be a business matter. The idea is that after work all the employees go out to the bar, order some drinks, and complain about work. It’s a way to relax and get to know your coworkers. Sometimes your boss will come too, which gives you an opportunity to get to know them outside of the more formal work setting. A lot of business matters are discussed over drinks, so participating in these gatherings can actually help you be successful in your job. If you don’t drink, you can still go. Just don’t order a drink.
This is probably one of the most surprising quirks, especially considering the more conservative nature of Japanese people.
Japan is well known for its business culture, and if you want to make it there, you’ll need to adjust to fit in with it. There’s nothing less attractive in a business sense than someone who ignores proper etiquette, so do your best to be polite and understanding. Hopefully, these short explanations can help you get a better sense of the Japanese business world.
In order to understand any culture, learning the history can really help. And Japan is no different. Japan has a wild history with dramatic changes in culture, government, and how they feel about foreigners. Figuring this out can really help you see where a lot of Japanese culture comes from.
So let’s get started. (We’ll go by time period, as listed on Wikipedia. Things get complicated and people disagree, so this will help us keep it easy.)
Jomon (10,000-300 BC)
This is your neolithic period. You can’t really call the country Japan yet, but they were doing some pretty cool stuff. Organized groups of people making pottery, from what we can tell. The pottery from this period is actually pretty famous because of how old it is. Jomon refers to the braided cord marks that decorated the pottery. It’s basically like calling an entire culture “Plaid.” Besides that, we don’t know much.
Yayoi (900 BC – 250 AD)
Alright, now we’re getting some farming going! There are new pots and rice fields. This is when China starts actually talking about Japan, but they just refer to them as “Wa.”
This period also has a pretty famous lady called Himiko. She was a religious and political leader at the time (which is pretty impressive they had a lady in charge, but considering their main deity is a woman, maybe it just follows).
This one is super easy to remember, guys. “Kofun” sounds like “coffin” and this period is all about burial mounds. I mean, that’s all we have from this period.
They made some really cool keyhole-shaped tombs called “kofun.” There’s still a ton of them around Japan. They are also surrounded by what are called haniwa figures. These clay figures are in the shapes of people and animals and are thought to sort of protecting the tomb. They look really funky, because the artists tried to understand the kami in the clay and portray that, rather than make them look realistic.
Yes, there are Kofun tombs still in Japan. No, you probably can’t go inside. They are protected, and it’s even hard for archaeologists to excavate them right now.
So I’ve heard this called Asuka and Yamato. The Yamato name comes from the main clan that started to take power at this time. They ended up writing the Nihon Shoki which pretty much validated their clan as “descended from the Sun Goddess.” As far as qualifications go, that seemed pretty good for everyone, so they took control of the country. Now we can start referring to this place as Japan.
Relations with China also became pretty important in this period. Before now, Japan was kind of doing its own thing. But during this period, there was this really important guy named Prince Shotoku. He sent a pretty offensive letter to China (“From the land where the sun rises to the land where the sun sets.” Ouch). Out of that, Japan and China finally started kind of getting along.
At this time (and most of the time in history) China was considered the pinnacle of civilization in the East. Everyone wanted to be like China. Even Japan. So they adopted Chinese architecture, language, writing, fashion, government (check out those Taika Reforms), pretty much whatever they could get their hands on. As a result, Asuka Period stuff is pretty Chinese-y.
This is also when Buddhism really starts becoming a thing.
If you thought Japan couldn’t get more Chinese-y, boy were you wrong. This is called the Nara period because they moved the capital to Nara. So creative. When they built the new capital city, they also based it on the Chinese capital Chang’an, which was thought to be the ideal setup for a city. I mean, Tang China is pretty great. I don’t blame them for trying to be like that.
This is basically Japan’s most Chinese time period. They wanted to be like the Tang Court so bad. Well, the aristocrats did. Everyone else just farmed.
So then the capital changed again, but they kept the whole Chang’an setup. Now the capital was in Heian (modern Kyoto).
This period is super influential when it comes to art and literature. Basically, Japan was at a time of peace, so everyone (aristocrats) had a lot of time to just make stuff. Farmers still farmed. But the members of the court would write poetry to each other and paint and dance and just develop Japanese traditions when it came to all of this stuff.
This is when one of the most influential pieces of literature The Tale of Genji was written.
Nothing really changed politically, but this is when Japanese culture really started to develop outside of Chinese.
The Heian Period was going pretty cool until there was a big war between 1180-1185 and everything changed. Basically, there was an argument about who should be the emperor, samurai showed up, and lots of people died. But one clan of samurai won pretty big, and they set up a military government (endorsed by the emperor and everything) in Kamakura. That’s where this period comes from.
Now the emperor isn’t really in charge, and the shogun is the guy who calls the shots. There’s a bunch of different regions in Japan, and samurai start to become their own separate class. This becomes even more of a true feudal system than even Europe experienced. Lords and domains, vassals and the whole thing. (Note: Comparing this to European feudalism is the easy way out. It was a lot different, and you shouldn’t say they were the same. But yeah, they had similarities and it’s easy for Westerners to understand this comparison. Just be careful.)
The time period changed because the government changed. Now it’s not the Kamakura Shogunate, but the Ashikaga Shogunate.
Zen Buddhism becomes pretty big, and Christians also show up (which didn’t end well for the Christians, to put it lightly).
Surprisingly enough, even though Japan is under a militaristic rule, there’s still a lot of encouragement for developing the arts. Samurai aren’t just mindless brutes. They were also expected to be poets and artists. Culture is a big deal, and while you might expect art and literature to go downhill in a time like this, it actually just gets better.
Momoyama/Warring States (1573-1603)
I rarely hear this called the Momoyama Period. It’s mostly referred to as the Warring States Period (that name was totally stolen from China). Towards the end of the Muromachi Period, things totally fall apart. All the clans are fighting with each other.
This is when the three unifiers step in. Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu end up pulling the whole thing together (using various techniques). In 1603, things settle down, and Tokugawa Ieyasu is the one who ended up on top with a finally unified country.
This one has two names because Tokugawa is the shogunate and Edo is the capital (modern Tokyo). Either name is fine.
What you know about Japanese culture probably came from this period. Geisha, samurai, kabuki, sushi–it was all Edo Period.
This is also the time of the famous “Closed Country Policy.” Now let’s correct some misconceptions here. Japan was not closed off to the entire world, like some believe. Japan was closed off to the Western world (except the Dutch). Trade with China and Korea continued. Now why were they selective in trade? Basically, the government didn’t want anything to do with a country that could help someone overthrow them. The Dutch were only in it for the trade, which is why they got a pass.
Eventually, the Americans showed up and ruined everything, as we tend to do. Commodore Matthew Perry (You’ll need to know this name if you go to Japan. People will ask you about him more than you expect. He’s called “Perry-san” there.) showed up with orders to open the country.
The Americans brought some pretty intimidating black ships, so the Japanese agreed.
This also led to a huge “Restoration” (it was basically a revolution) where the shogunate was overthrown and the emperor was reestablished as the actual ruler of Japan.
Cue westernization montage.
Japan westernized crazy fast. Commodore Perry brought a mini train with him, and 30 years later, Japan had its first train line. Guys. That’s crazy.
The time periods are shorter here because they change with each emperor.
This time period was really short because everyone thought the Taisho Emperor was crazy. He got sick when he was a kid, so he wasn’t all there, and they did their best to replace him pretty quick.
Besides that, not much happened besides more rapid westernization.
A lot of people know about this period because of World War II and Japan’s efforts to become an imperial power. So much happened in this time, and it’s all really complicated, so here is my briefest version.
-Japan started trying to take over everything
-They declared war against China
-They totally wrecked China
-Eventually the war with China turned into them joining World War II
-They pulled the U.S. into the war
-The U.S. wrecked Japan with nuclear weapons, and Japan surrendered
-The U.S. occupied Japan, and totally redid their government
-Japan suddenly found crazy economic success
Modern history is crazy and complicated. I did my best. One day, we can hash this out in its own article to give you guys more details.
Japan had crazy economic success until the bubble burst in 1990. Some people blame the government, but who can really blame anyone?
But Japan has still been doing pretty good.
So hopefully this has helped you understand a little bit of Japan’s history. This overview is very brief and is definitely missing a lot, but it is just meant to get you started.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks and we can actually break down these periods for you. Then you can really see how Japan became Japan.
by Jessica Hutchison
Geisha are a popular image of Japan. Most people who see a geisha, even if they aren’t familiar with the term, will probably associate her with Japan. However, people in the West also have a rather large misconception when it comes to these fancy-looking ladies.
I asked several people, “What comes to mind when you think of a geisha? What are they?” And almost every single one of them replied, “They’re prostitutes.”
Well, they were wrong. Most Americans would say that, and they would all be wrong.
So what is a geisha then? Let’s get into that.
The term “geisha” (芸者) means “art person.” So basically, a geisha is someone who is skilled in the arts. She is the perfect hostess and entertainer. Geisha are well-known for their skills with music, poetry, dance, literature, and witty conversation. When you pay to spend time with a geisha, you are paying to spend time with a highly cultured woman.
If this is all true, how did geisha get such a bad reputation? The answer to that is in the history of geisha.
Of course, before geisha actually became a thing, there were girls (and some men) who would go around to entertain people. They were usually skilled in the previously mentioned arts, and if they were less skilled, they would also sell themselves at times. There’s a lot of fancy terms for all these people, but that’s a lot to remember.
An interesting note though: when the term geisha was first used, it actually mostly applied to male entertainers. “Geisha” in Japanese is a gender neutral term. Later, they also started using the term “geiko” (芸妓) which is definitely feminine. Men may have started out this occupation, but it quickly became a career path for women, so now we associate the term with women.
So geisha would go around and do their thing, but finally they were all confined to the pleasure quarters. This is when the government was very strict and wanted to even control where the sketchier ladies hung out. And they lumped the geisha in with that crowd just because everyone was considered an “entertainer.” The entertainment they provided was pretty different though.
The pleasure quarters (as you might guess by the name) were home to all the prostitutes and courtesans (fancy prostitutes) as well. And boy. These were not fun places to live. Basically, they were walled off from the rest of the city, sometimes even with a moat. The workers were all but imprisoned there until they could work off whatever contract they had. Lots of fun diseases were going around. Men would show up to hang out with the ladies, and samurai would have to be pretty sneaky about it. A lot of times samurai weren’t allowed to go. Not that it stopped them.
Geisha were also pretty much stuck there. Geisha generally worked for a house, so they would be kept there to entertain guests and make money for the house. A lot of them were actually not allowed to perform the same kind of “entertainment” as the prostitutes and courtesans, even though some of them still would.
These people made a lot of money for their houses. There’s a lot of plays and stories about men falling in love with the courtesans or women they spent time with there. Generally, they promise to buy the girl’s contract and marry her, but contracts were expensive. A man would have to not only pay for what she was making currently, but everything she could possibly make for the duration of her contract. A courtesan was expensive, so imagine how much a geisha would go for.
Another interesting thing to note is that the idea of men visiting the pleasure quarters was not frowned upon. It was actually kind of expected. I recently read a puppet play where a man was trying to buy the contract of a courtesan, and his wife was actually very supportive of it. It was kind of weird to read, being a wife myself. But that’s just how things were at that time. Infidelity wasn’t against any sort of commandment in Shintoism, like it is in many other religions.
Of course, a geisha and a courtesan are very different. But this proximity to each other could have given the wrong impression of geisha.
This made it pretty easy for foreigners to get this false impression. A lot of things have been mixed up between geisha and courtesans. One big one is that geisha in training will sell off their virginity. That’s actually a courtesan thing. Another problem that came up when Americans occupied Japan after World War II is that prostitutes would dress up like geisha (well, maiko actually) to get customers. This is probably a big reason we see geisha in that way.
That, and how geisha are portrayed in movies. The most famous movie would probably be “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was based on the book by the same name. Although this story has been popular, it is pretty sensationalized. There are a lot of books that better portray the life of geisha, such as Geisha, A Life, which was written by an actual geisha who was not a white man. There is also the book Geisha by Liza Dalby, who was an American woman who became a geisha. I would trust those sources above the more popular movie.
Geisha are dignified, cultured women who entertain with the arts. They are actually pretty important to Japanese culture, because they have preserved a lot of the traditional arts that could have easily been lost during Japan’s rapid Westernization. In the early 20th Century there was a lot of push against tradition as Japan embraced Western culture. You didn’t really see a lot of people sitting around and playing the samisen at that time. But geisha did.
Of course, geisha can’t take all the credit for preserving traditional Japanese culture. There’s still a lot of stuff that made it, like kabuki and gagaku. But they probably helped, especially with their knowledge of music, dance, and the tea ceremony.
So now that we have a bit of the history of geisha, let’s talk a little more about what they are.
First of all, the image that most people have in their mind of a geisha isn’t actually a geisha. It’s a maiko. A maiko is a geisha in training, and you can usually tell by how they dress. Maiko dress very flashy, with lots of bright colors and heavy makeup. They have fancy, elaborate kimono, and they tie their obi into more complicated designs. This is usually what we think of when we think of a full geisha. They also tend to have a distinct red collar, showing their status.
A full geisha would tend to dress a bit more conservatively. Her kimono and wig would still be very elegant, and definitely flashier than anything a normal woman would wear even on a nice night out. But the colors would be more muted, and the obi tied more conservatively. Her makeup would also be more subdued. A full geisha doesn’t really need to show off.
Clothing and makeup have so much meaning in the world of the geisha. They don’t just throw anything on. They take great care in matching colors and selecting their clothes and makeup. A lot of it is symbolic too. If you are familiar with the certain symbols, you could be able to tell a woman’s rank, house, and even age just by seeing how she was dressed. Selecting clothes has been an important upper class tradition since before the Heian Period, and it is a tradition geisha continue to keep. Doing this establishes them as being more classy.
There are still geisha around today, doing what geisha have done for hundreds of years. You can pay to spend time with a geisha. She would probably make you tea, play you some music, dance a bit for you, and make you feel generally comfortable. She would not, however, go much further than maybe a flirtatious comment or two. As I said before, they are entertainers, but not in the same sense as those courtesans.
There’s still some really big geisha houses in Japan, Gion Kobu being the biggest and fanciest. A lot of really rich people will go there to be entertained.
Plenty of girls today still turn to this as a career path. There are even a few foreigners who have become geisha, such as Dalby. Of course, some houses won’t take them, but there are plenty who would.
So maybe this can serve as a lesson to us. I was in the same boat as a lot of Americans, where I just knew that geisha were prostitutes. It wasn’t until I actually started learning about them that I realized how wrong I was. We’ve made a lot of movies and written a lot of book about things we don’t really understand, so make sure you take the time and check your sources.
There’s a lot of information out there in the world, and we should do our best to determine what is true and what isn’t. As for geisha, what a bunch of classy ladies!
by Jessica Hutchison
If you really want to understand Japanese culture, one of the things you really need to get is where you stand. Knowing your social standing in any sort of group situation dictates everything you do, including how you speak. We can coast by in Western culture, for the most part, but this is super important in order to not offend someone in Japan.
So this article will explain the most important part of knowing your place: uchi and soto.
Literally translated, uchi means “home” or “inside.” We will use the English term “in-group.” Soto means “outside,” or, in our case, “out-group.”
To explain it simply, when you are speaking to anyone in Japan, you have an in-group and an out-group. You need to know where the person you are speaking is, in that sense. And if you are discussing someone else, you need to know where that person is in relation to you.
To help you understand this, I have created this amazing, very elaborate diagram.
As you can see in the diagram, there are bubbles in society. This is the first step to determining soto and uchi. When you speak to anyone, no matter which ring they are on in relation to you, every ring closer to you is your in-group, and every ring further is your out-group. The person you are talking to is also, by default, out-group.
For example, let’s say you are friends with Satomi-chan. You can call her “chan” because she is close enough to you. You would never call a stranger or even an acquaintance “chan” (unless they were about 5 years old). While you talk to her, your in-group consists of you and your family. This means you can use more familiar terms when referring to them, because they are closer to you than they are to Satomi-chan. So if you were talking about your mother, you would use the familiar term haha.
Now if you were talking about Satomi-chan’s mother, things would be different. Her mother is part of her in-group, but may only be one of your acquaintances. When talking about Satomi-chan’s mother, you would use the more polite term okaa-san. If you say haha, Satomi-chan will think you are talking about your mother, and it can get confusing. It’s also kind of rude.
So what happens if you’re talking to your own mother? If you look at the rings, addressing someone in your family means the only ring closer to you is you. You are your in-group. So you need to address the people in your out-group, which includes your family in this case, with respect. You wouldn’t call your mother “haha,” because that would be rude. But you can certainly call her “okaa-san.” There’s a lot of affectionate terms to call your mother, but they are not haha, because she is still in your out-group when you speak to her.
By these rules, you can see that you will always be in your in-group. It is never really appropriate to give yourself honorifics of any sort. Japanese is a language that loves humility, and you can sound rude or even stuck-up if you try to talk yourself up.
Your speaking style should also change as you get to rings further away from you. While you can talk to Satomi-chan and your mother in more casual language, if you are talking to someone you are less close with, you should be more polite.
Another important factor in this is age. Generally, those older than you can be considered your out-group. Even if you are close friends with them, it’s a good idea to speak to them respectfully. Also, you can always talk to kids in casual Japanese because of this age rule.
This is a pretty important concept to understand if you want to not offend people. Obviously, you can be off putting by speaking down to someone. If you go to your boss at work and start speaking very casually to him, it won’t go over well.
But an interesting thing is that you can also offend people by being too polite. I knew someone who had a Japanese coworker. They worked together closely for months, and finally the Japanese guy got really upset at the American.
He was upset because the American always used formal Japanese. “If you speak like that all the time, we can never be friends,” he said. They were considered the same social rank, so naturally, working together should have led to a friendship and more casual conversation. However, the American didn’t realize this. By using formal speech, he essentially built a wall between them that said, “We will always just be acquaintances.”
This is kind of a hard thing to get used to, because we don’t really have any sort of social rules like these. One of the best ways to tell where you stand with someone is by noticing how they speak to you. Obviously, older people will be more casual with you. But if someone your same age and status starts using more casual Japanese with you, it’s okay to be casual with them too. Japanese people have been working with these rules a lot longer than you, so let them help you figure it out.
One important thing that you should understand as a foreigner though, is that you will always be soto. Maybe not in everyday conversations, but foreigners never quite fit in when they go to Japan. It can be a bit more difficult to build relationships like this, but showing you understand soto and uchi by how you act and speak can be really impressive.
Of course, you’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. I still do. But this is one cultural thing you should work hard to master. It will help you make friends, earn respect, and really understand Japanese culture.
Ramen, the traditional food of broke college students. In American we know Ramen as the instant, cheap noodles we all grew up with. I remember the day my roommate got a book on how to level-up her ramen. I learned the ancient art of adding some scrambled egg to my ramen and thought I had taken my ramen game to a whole new playing field. Little did I know, America has ramen all wrong.
In 2014 I made my first trip to Japan. My husband spoke Japanese and introduced me to a ton of new people, places, and my personal favorite– food. Then we had Ramen. It was so far from American ramen, it was basically a totally different dish–which I would argue, has next to nothing in common with American ramen, except that they both have broth and noodles.
My first bowl of Japanese ramen had the most delicious, flavored, soft boiled egg, melty chashu pork, tender noodles, and the richest broth I’d ever had. Looking back, dozens of bowls of ramen later, it was probably just an okay bowl of Japanese ramen. For me, it still ranks as one of the most amazing bowls I’ve ever had, because it introduced me to the world of Japanese ramen.
I’ve since learned that there isn’t just one kind of Japanese ramen either. Most ramen is characterized by the type of broth it has, or the region it comes from. This list isn’t inclusive, but here are some of the different ramen types you’ll find in Japan. All of them are worth trying.
Main Types of Ramen in Japan
The main types of ramen are typically defined by the type of broth used for the ramen base. There are five main variations of ramen broth, but honestly, it’s common to mix and adapt the broths for the desired flavor, rather than remain a purist. Here are the most popular types of ramen by broth.
Tsukemen defies the traditional Japanese Ramen stereotype. It also happens to be my husband’s absolute, hands-down, favorite type of ramen in the whole world. Traditional Japanese ramen has noodles soaking in a delicious broth with toppings adorning the bowl. Not so with tsukemen. With this type of ramen, noodles are served in one bowl and dipped into another bowl with thick, rich, fatty broth. Tsukemen broth tends to be served thicker, hotter, and with a more intense flavor than traditional ramen broth. The toppings are served on the side.
Shio (Salt) Ramen
Shio ramen is known for its lighter broth, flavored primarily with sea salt. This type of ramen originated in the Hokkaido prefecture of Japan but can be found throughout the country. The broth has a mild, sea salt flavor that is lighter than most other ramen broths.
A more recent addition to the ramen food scene in Japan, this broth type also originated in the Hokkaido region. It uses a miso base for the soup and is a richer broth base for your noodles to swim in.
By far the most popular ramen broth base outside of Japan. Tonkotsu ramen has a pork-bone-based broth that is rich and fatty. It’s probably my personal favorite for ramen and is certainly one of the richer ramen broths out there. It’s also good as an intro ramen if you’re new to the ramen game.
Shoyu means “soy sauce” in Japanese. The primary seasoning in this broth is, you guessed it, soy sauce. This type of ramen gets its roots from the Tokyo area of Japan, but is also popular throughout the country, and is typically easy to find outside of Japan as well. It has all the salty deliciousness of a rich, fermented, soy sauce, which also serves to enhance the flavors of the meats and vegetables that accompany the dish.
Regional Variations of Japanese Ramen
Japan has an intense dedication to their regional foods. Ramen is no different, and each region lends its own flair to their ramen. Here are some of the most famous ramen types by region.
Sapporo Miso Ramen
Sapporo is known for being the coldest region of Japan and the choice of what to include in their ramen reflects that. The ramen in Sapporo often features seasonal seafood and the broth is very hearty, salty, and typically topped off with a thick slice of butter. Sapporo also traditionally includes a spoonful of corn to finish the bowl, you know, to make it healthy…
Also from the northern region of Japan, this ramen has a slightly fatty shoyu (soy sauce) based broth and fairly simple toppings. Pork, ajitsuke tamago (marinated egg), bamboo, and even fish cake have a place in this delicious bowl.
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen
The most popular ramen broth outside of Japan is tonkotsu. This thick pork bone broth appears in this immensely popular ramen style that comes from the southernmost part of Japan’s main island. The broth is thick and rich and the noodles will always be served al-dente to ensure they don’t get soggy on you. No one likes soggy noodles.
While some ramen is rich and hearty, Kitakata ramen, is the perfect example of subtle flavors blending together to create a well-balanced dish. It consists of a shoyu-based broth, simmered with dried fish and pork to temper the flavor. The toppings are also fairly simple and it often includes a thicker, curly type of noodle.
Another shoyu based ramen comes from the Hiroshima area and has some very distinctive ingredients. Comprised of seafood, homemade, flat noodles, and characteristic floating chunks of fat that adorn the bowl. This is not a ramen to be missed.
Nagoya “Taiwan” Ramen
Despite its name, Taiwan ramen did not originate in Taiwan. It was born of a Taiwanese chef who combined the Taiwanese dan dan noodle dish and Japanese ramen in a fusion noodle bowl. This dish is known for its intense, spicy flavor, ground pork, chives, garlic, and bean sprouts. If you’re into spicy noodles, this is the ramen to try.
Another Chinese inspired ramen dish is champon. It most commonly consists of fried seafood, pork, and vegetables with a chicken broth base. It’s not what you would think of for a traditional bowl of Japanese ramen, and there are many variations on the presentation and broth depending where you go.
Hakodate is known for being a fairly simple bowl of ramen, with a perfect balance of flavor. Typically, it includes a shio (salt) broth, pork, bamboo shoots, and green onions. What it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in flavor.
This tonkotsu based ramen is traditionally lighter on flavor than other tonkotsu ramens. In addition to pork bones, this ramen also uses the pork skull with eyes and brain. While it might sound gross, it actually lends a creamy sweetness to the broth that the bone and marrow alone can’t provide. Kurume ramen has traditional ramen toppings and thin, straight noodles.
As the name suggests, this soup bears some semblance to soba noodles, but these noodles aren’t made from buckwheat. The broth and pork toppings are much like regular ramen, with some interesting additions like; seaweed, bonito flakes, and pickled ginger.
This southern Japanese ramen from Kyushu has a tonkotsu broth base that is often enhanced with others flavors like seaweed, anchovies, and chicken. The variety of flavors give the broth a distinctive and complex flavor. Thin noodles are preferred in this dish and simple toppings of pork, egg, and green onions complete the bowl.
A lesser known type of Ramen hails from a small town in the Japanese Alps called Hida Takayama. The Ramen in Takayama is a simple version of the dish that focuses on quality flavors in the broth and meat. It usually consists of a light shoyu-based broth, flavored with beef or chicken. The toppings are simple, usually chashu pork and green onions, however, some locations choose to add the regional beef, known as Hida Gyu instead. Hida Gyu is known for its excellent quality and it’s worth paying extra to try it.
Japanese ramen is a far cry from your dorm room days in college. There’s an incredible array of flavors and regional variations to explore and enjoy. Get out, try some new ramen, and figure out which one is your favorite.
By John Sorenson
There are a lot of pitfalls involved in learning a new language. Learning a massive amount of vocabulary, developing new reading and writing skills, and practicing proper pronunciation are all difficulties that just about everyone is aware of when they begin to tackle a new language. However, there are quite a few aspects of language learning that seem to be underemphasized, leading quite a few beginner and intermediate students to develop undesirable language patterns. One of the most prominent pitfalls for those attempting to learn a second language occurs when the student attempts to directly translate from one language to another.
For those who speak English who are attempting to learn a language outside of the ‘Romance languages’, the direct translation is a much fairly large issue. Japanese is among the hardest languages to learn from English because of how dissimilar they are. From the basic sentence order (English) Subject-Verb-Object (English) Subject-Object-Verb (Japanese), to the vocabulary rooted in entirely different language groups, Romantic and Japonic, the differences in the languages are immense, requiring a complete reconstruction of linguistic understanding from the ground up. But just about anyone who has studied Japanese for more than two months is aware of these issues. Because the majority of learners are aware of this, they can often avoid these pitfalls through consistent study and practice. However, the pitfalls that learners are often unaware of cause some of the biggest problems.
How direct translation kills your Japanese
Forgetting the importance of phrasing:
One of the most common mistakes in learning Japanese is found in phrasing. While most are aware that they can’t just replace words from English with the dictionary equivalent in Japanese, many forget that phrasing doesn’t always communicate either. For instance, one of the mistakes I hear pretty often is when non-native Japanese speakers try to say “the battery died” and say “denchi ga shinda”, directly translated from “dead” and “battery.” While “the battery died”is the most common phrasing in English, native Japanese speakers get pretty confused when they hear “denchi ga shinda”. The phrasing simply doesn’t translate. Rather “denchi ga kireta” is one of the correct ways to phrase “the battery died” in Japanese. This pattern of attempting to translate phrasing from English to Japanese is one of the most fundamental mistakes, and also one of the most pervasive. This can apply to anything from improper verb phrasing, such as forgetting to apply vector verbs such as iku (to go) and kuru (to come) to verbs requiring vectors such as aruku (to walk) and tobu (to fly), to phrasing involving proper particle use, such as knowing when to use particles with similar functions such as de, ni, and wo. Being aware of phrasing issues is half the battle. Learning the proper phrasing and understanding the underlying rules that govern the differences between English and Japanese is the second half. Don’t let improper phrasing due to direct translation kill your Japanese.
Language isn’t just an act of speech, but an act of culture:
Another pitfall that has a major impact on learning Japanese is the misconception that speaking another language only involves knowing the vocabulary and grammar required to say what you want to say and understanding what others are saying. The misconception is that meaning directly translates as long as the words and sentences are grammatically correct. What many often forget is that language is an act of culture. Language isn’t merely an act of uttering words and knowing the rules of speech; it’s a process of conveying meaning across a unique system of cultural values and ideals.
One of the reasons that learning Japanese is so difficult for English speakers is the massive gap between Eastern and Western cultures. Without cultural understanding, the social rules that govern formality in Japanese speech (i.e. when to use desu and masu forms, honorifics, and humilifics) cannot be properly understood and enacted. Without knowing the value system of ‘saving face’ and indirect confrontation, attempts at navigating situations that involve conflicting opinions can result in embarrassment and offense. Even humor varies from culture to culture to a large degree. Language isn’t only about knowing what to say, but how to convey meaning across cultures. This requires a significant amount of cultural understanding that many often ignore or underemphasize in their language studies. Meaning doesn’t directly translate across cultures. Learn the culture in order to truly communicate through the language.
Emotion and body language aren’t universal:
It’s rare to find a class that addresses the performative act of infusing emotion and body language into a foreign language. And while many will argue that a smile is a smile in any language – and the use of similar emojis across the globe may back this up to a certain degree – this only serves to display a superficial understanding of performative culture. Laughter and tears and balled up fists of rage may indeed be easily interpreted without a formal education, but the communication of more subtle emotional and emphatic tones can be quite evasive without close attention.
In English, emotion and emphasis are conveyed by increasing and decreasing the pitch and volume of the speaker’s voice on particular syllables in a given sentence. In Japanese, emotion, and emphasis are generally conveyed through the language itself. Auxiliary verbs such as te-shimau, sentence final particles such as yo, na, and no, and other parts of speech such as adjectives, adverbs, and expressions, represent the primary ways emotion and emphasis are conveyed in Japanese. When non-native Japanese speakers attempt to express emphasis or emotion by varying the volume and pitch of a mora (Japanese equivalent of syllables), not only are they lost in translation, but it gives off the impression that the speaker’s Japanese is unnatural. The pitch variation in Japanese words are standardized (assigned to each mora), so by stressing mora in peculiar ways, the speaker is making linguistic mistakes. Emotion doesn’t directly translate from English to Japanese.
Body language is another issue for Westerners attempting to live and adapt to Japanese culture. There are some ‘do’s and don’ts that most people know after living a short while in Japan. A common ‘do’ is bowing rather than handshaking, a common ‘don’t’ is yawning (even while covering the mouth) when in public. However, more subtle body language problems often go unknown – unless a native Japanese feels comfortable enough to correct the mistake. Leaning back in a chair or slouching in a position that gives off the impression of boredom or restlessness is offensive in Japanese culture (at least, when you’re with people in public). Resting one leg on the other when sitting on a chair gives off the same impression and is disrespectful in Japan. I’ve been told that it gives off an air of overconfidence. Along the same lines, leaning back with your arms folded can give off the same sense of cockiness. While it may not be the most proper body language in the West either, it certainly isn’t as abrasive as it is in Japan. It’s important to remember the differences in body language because it’s not one of the most obvious concerns students have when learning a language.
While learning a foreign language such as Japanese, most students primarily focus on vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation skills – but there is much more to communicating in a foreign language than this. Every student of Japanese should remember that they are learning a language that requires them to understand and adapt to an entirely different culture. Every student needs to remember that most of their prior means of communication won’t directly translate into this new language and culture. So if you are studying Japanese, don’t let your direct translation kill your Japanese! Take the time to learn the culture! Learn the other, more subtle, means of communication! Speak the language and enact the culture!
Special diets are hard. And traveling abroad with any sort of dietary restriction—especially in a country that doesn’t speak English—can seem impossible. But it is doable! Having lived in Japan for over a month on a gluten-free diet, I am here to give you some tips on how to navigate Japan while meeting your dietary needs.
There are some people who avoid travel altogether because of food allergies or other dietary needs. My mom is one of them. She won’t even consider the possibility of traveling to Japan with me, because she has celiac disease and is worried about what she could eat. If you have concerns like she does, hopefully this will help you see that you can make it in Japan.
So here are my tips for how to survive in Japan.
1. Do your research.
This should be the first thing you do before traveling to any foreign country, just so you can have a heads up before you get there.
Whether you have something like celiac disease, a peanut allergy, or you choose to be vegetarian, chances are someone who has the same (or a similar) dietary restriction has already gone to Japan and written about it. The internet is a powerful tool, and it can help you a lot in this case.
This is super important if you have a rarer allergy or something that is not as common in Japan. When I lived there, I was sick and thought I had celiac disease. I asked the doctor if he could test for it, and he didn’t even know what it was. I explained it to him and all he said was, “If you have that, I have absolutely no idea what you can eat.” When I finally did get tested, they literally had to mail my blood to the U.S. because no hospital in Japan could do the test. It was that uncommon.
There are dietary needs in Japan that are pretty common. Lactose intolerance, egg allergies, even diabetes are probably pretty well known. But if you’re allergic to something like ginger, you’ll need to be a bit more careful.
If you research your specific needs, there are some other options you can find that you might not have considered. For example, when I was there I easily found gluten-free soy sauce in my local grocery store. It even had a big green label by it advertising it to people with wheat allergies. I also learned that soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and you can get 100% soba noodles that are completely gluten free. Poke around and learn as much as you can before you get there.
2. Cooking your own food is the best way to go…
…in my opinion. But you’ll need to learn some Japanese.
You know that people have good intentions, but sometimes they really don’t understand what you need. If you have a severe allergy or other health restriction, I completely believe that cooking your own meals is your safest bet. Even when you can speak the same language as your waiter, sometimes things get messed up, or there are misunderstandings.
When looking at places to stay in Japan, try to get a place that has some sort of kitchen facility you can use, even if it’s small (which it probably will be). This gives you so many possibilities!
First off, you’ll need to learn to read a little bit. You’re probably used to reading labels in the U.S., and Japan is also very good at listing all the ingredients in food items. So learn how to read what you can’t eat, or what you need to be careful with, to make sure it isn’t in the food you are buying.
To get you started, here are some basic characters for common allergies.
Milk – 牛乳 gyuunyuu
Eggs – 卵, 玉子 tamago (I’ve seen both kanji used, but the first seems more common)
Peanuts – ピーナッツ piinatsu
Tree Nuts – 胡桃 kurumi (walnut), アーモンド aamondo (almond), 松の実 matsu no mi (pine nut), ブラジルナッツ burajiru natsu (Brazil nut), ピーカン piikan (pecan)
Soy – 豆 mame (this just means bean, so you’ll need to look more into soy)
Wheat – 小麦 komugi
Barley – 大麦 oomugi
Rye – ライ麦 raimugi
Fish – 魚 sakana
Shellfish – 貝 kai
Consider these different foods when you are shopping:
· Rice – Rice is your best friend! Rice is a staple of Japanese food. And it’s pretty easy to get. If you’re there long term, look into buying a bag based on how long your stay. A $20 bag of rice can actually last one person quite a while. If you’re only there for a short time period, most stores sell single servings of rice you can just microwave. This is a great food for most special diets. If you are low carb or diabetic, however, there are still plenty of other options.
· Vegetables – Japanese vegetables are amazing, and very different from what we have in the U.S. The produce in Japan tends to be super fresh, and grocery stores can be very particular on making sure only the really nice looking carrots are out on display (if you want the rejects, there are some hidden grocery stores for that). Vegetables are good for almost every special diet, and a great low carb option for a meal. They also tend to be reasonably priced, as opposed to fruit. Take this chance abroad to try out a new vegetable and make it a little adventure as you try to figure out how to cook a daikon.
· Chicken and Pork – Protein is pretty important when cooking for yourself, and why not stick with something familiar? One thing I loved in Japan was that these meats were available in smaller portions that were perfect for dinner for one or two people. They also had different cuts that let you be a bit more creative in what you make. Man, do I miss being able to get thinly sliced pork belly without going to the deli counter. Beef is there too, of course, but it tends to be more expensive.
· Fish – Guys. Japan is an island. An island. The fish is absolutely amazing. You can buy any sort of fish you want in basically any grocery store (yes, even octopus), and it’s so fresh and so delicious. It’s also dirt cheap. If you want some salmon filets in the U.S. you better be looking at taking out a second mortgage on your home. But in Japan, it’s even cheaper than the chicken sometimes. If you’re going to be daring and get some strange sort of fish, just make sure you look up how to cook it. But please enjoy the seafood if you can.
· Tofu – Tofu is the redheaded stepchild of the protein world. And it absolutely should not be. If you have problems with soy, definitely stay away from it. But if you don’t, throw it into your diet immediately. If you’re worried about the texture, try all of them. There’s silky tofu that’s basically the consistency of pudding, and then it goes all the way to firm tofu which is certainly not pudding-like in any way (unless you make pudding very wrong). Dabble in tofu until you find what you like. If your worried about flavor, don’t be. Tofu is practically flavorless, and will pretty much taste like whatever you put it in. Tofu in miso soup? Tastes like miso. Tofu in soy sauce? Tastes like soy sauce. Tofu is one of the most versatile proteins you can get in Japan, and it’s great for people worried about their dietary restrictions. Also, it’s ridiculously cheap. Give it a whirl, and if you don’t like it, that’s your loss.
· Fruit – Okay, I’ll admit it. Fruit in Japan is so much better than it is in the U.S. It would be a great addition to any restricted diet or a normal diet for that matter. The only problem is the price. Like vegetables, grocery stores only like to put out the fruit that is the best looking. Unlike vegetables, they make the price match. It’s definitely good for a treat, and a lot of Japanese people incorporate fruits into their desserts. If you can find it cheap, you are better than me, because I never could. But it’s still a great option for people who want to add more to their homemade food.
These are just some general suggestions. Take some time in the grocery store to look at things that seem interesting. Read labels diligently, and don’t be afraid to ask one of the workers if you need help. With some basic Japanese, you can easily ask if the shrimp chips contain soy or where the gluten-free soy sauce might be. Grocery store people are really nice.
I know cooking while on vacation isn’t ideal, but it sure beats being sick. If you want to spend a whole day out exploring, make your food the night before and get a little bento box from the dollar store so you can have fun all day long.
3. If you have to eat out, you can.
But you’ll need to learn some Japanese. Or have a friend who speaks Japanese and totally understands your situation.
Just like restaurants in the U.S., restaurants in Japan are aware of food allergies or other dietary needs. And just like U.S. restaurants, it can really be hit or miss. Sometimes a restaurant will be very diligent in making sure there isn’t even the possibility of cross-contamination. And sometimes they’ll advise you not to eat there.
Luckily, even though some allergies are less common there, if you go to a place that is more geared towards foreigners, you might be able to find something. My friend found a restaurant right by Tokyo Tower with this sign out front.
“Gluten-free” is written in English (though the Japanese is advertising 100% soba noodles), so this is clearly meant for foreigners. If you’re in a bigger city like Tokyo, you may be lucky enough to find places like this.
It is much better if you or someone in your party can really explain the situation to the server. I personally don’t know if I would take my mother to a restaurant and really feel comfortable, but if you feel alright with it, go ahead. Japanese restaurants can have really good food, and eating out is such a fun part of traveling. For certain diets, such as vegetarian, low carb, or minor allergies, I think you would be totally fine in a restaurant setting. But if you have major concerns (like I know my mom would), I would still stick with making your own food.
Sometimes, that isn’t an option and you just have to grab food on the run. If that’s the case, and you are worried about a restaurant, try a conbini. You can get pre-made food there for decent prices (sometimes they even warm it up!), and you can read the label. Plus, conbini food is amazing.
4. You know yourself best.
Everything I’ve said is just based off my personal experience and the concerns I had in Japan. In the end, you know what is right for you. My mom can’t even be in the kitchen when we are cooking with wheat, but some gluten intolerant people can still manage a slice of pizza occasionally. Everyone is different.
Luckily for us, Japan is a developed country, and there are actually quite a few options for people with special diets. Hopefully, these suggestions help you see that your dietary needs shouldn’t have to restrict your travel, especially when going to a place that’s as amazing as Japan.
So get out there and have fun! Just make sure you take care of yourself.
Due north of Tokyo, Niigata Prefecture lies on the western face of Japan, bordering the sea. Niigata’s terrain is carved with enormous mountain passes that mark the northern end of the Japanese alps. These soaring slopes are covered with heavy snowfall in the winter months, providing an ideal location for rural ski-towns. From mid-November until the beginning of April, snow falls ceaselessly. The snow that gradually builds inch by inch, day after day, forms into an impenetrable wall that finally melts away in the warmth in early May. The snow is gets so tall during this time that many homes have two genkan built into their house, one on the first story of the house and the other directly above it on the second story, allowing the home owners to walk out directly onto the thirteen feet of snow that inevitably accumulates before the end of winter. Thus, rural Niigata has been named Yukiguni, or Snow Country.
While the winters of Niigata are characterized by a fine sheet of white that covers every living thing, the late spring and summer months allow the vibrant greens of rice fields and thick impenetrable forests, which are typical of Japan, to finally emerge. The mountain air grows warm and sweet in the afternoon sun, then slowly cools in the early evening and holds late into the morning. The higher you drive in these remote mountains; the marks of human life grow increasingly scarce. Although these rural towns are far from restless cityscapes, with their constant roar of human life, they are far from silent. The days and nights are filled with the sounds of life. From the hum of the cicada to the ribbits of frogs and howls of monkeys; the mountains are alive with the breath and constant flow of life. It’s a common occurrence to be reminded of your closeness with the other forms of life that occupy the world – something that tends to be forgotten modern society.
I lived in a rural mountain town in this mountainy region of Niigata for a season only a little while ago. I moved there at the end of April when the snow had almost finished melting away, standing at a mere four-feet high. I arrived as the town had begun to shake off the frost of the long winter. Having lived in Japan a few years before, just prior to starting college, I had always wanted to return once again to live with the people and experience the country with the freedom that is allowed to those who are fluent in the language and culture. I ached to travel across Japan and explore the areas that few tourists can venture without a guide. So, in order to satiate my desire to return and immerse myself in Japanese life and culture, I found an opportunity at a non-profit international college, which allowed me to work professionally and travel freely. Through accepting the position offered by this oddly placed NPO, I found myself living with four Japanese college students in a cabin in the mountains removed forty-minutes by car from the country town of Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. This admittedly unfavorably remote location would serve as my base of travel operations where I would work and live as I explored Japan.
Although many Japanese claim to be non-religious , almost all consider themselves to be Shinto and Buddhist. Their spirituality doesn’t come in the form of weekly church attendance or adherence to a specific religious doctrine, but as a manifestation of a culture that has been passed down and embraced; a manner of lifestyle that is enacted in the most common and everyday practices in Japanese life. Shintoism permeates Japanese culture, tradition, and society – intertwining itself into the very heart and soul of all things Japanese. In fact, Shintoism is infused with the concept of the sacred of almost every natural thing native to Japan  – whether it be objects, people, places, or things. There is potential for kami in nearly every aspect of Japanese life.
While the exact doctrine (for the lack of a better word) of Shinto belief varies region to region, a few features that remain consistent throughout the continuum of Shinto belief. Kami, often translated to “God” or “gods”, reaches past what most western cultures consider to be the divine. Kami is contained in all that is sacred. It denotes the sacredness of nature, the spirit in ordinary objects, and the divinity of all living things. From Mt. Fuji to O-hashi (Chopsticks), from rivers and trees to deer and spiders, Shintoism contains the belief that the sacred spirit can be in all; from the supernatural to the simple and ordinary. The term yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神), the eight-million gods, can be seen as an exemplary principle of Shinto belief.
But if there are eight-million kami, what separates the sacred from the profane? Where is the sacred if even the commonplace and every day is considered to be divine? This problem is reconciled through one of the fundamental features of Shintoism – the concept of sacred space and sacred time . Before I began my travels that summer, I only had a basic grasp of what the Shinto concept of the sacred entailed, only brief glimpses into what this could mean. Through my first experience traveling alone through Niigata, I had a brief experience of sacredness that is embedded in the common and every day of Japan.
After taking the first two weeks to settle into my new home, I decided to set off on a weekend trip to travel around the major cities in the Niigata region. When I say major cities, I mean major in comparison to the villages and farm towns that make up the majority of civilization in Niigata. In reality, these two cities, Nagaoka and Niigata, barely make up a total population of one-million between the two. Yet, regardless of how small these cities actually are, Nagaoka and Niigata seemed like epicenters of culture and excitement compared to my humble cabin in the mountain town.
One Saturday in May, I set off to Nagaoka with a few of my Japanese roommates. Our first destination was すたみな太郎 or Stamina Taro. I don’t know if I can fully express the sheer joy of Stamina Taro through mere words. It’s a blasphemy to try to describe it through such a profane tool such as common language. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to convey all that Stamina Taro is and what a gift it is to those who enter. Stamina Taro is where the saints go after they die. Stamina Taro is what the Vikings of long ago referred to as Valhalla. Stamina Taro is the Garden of Eden, El Dorado, and the state of Nirvana all in one physical manifestation as a state of paradise in our undeserving and profane world. In other words, Stamina Taro is an all you can eat (食べ放題) Yakiniku (焼肉)restaurant with around thirty different cuts of meats which are marinated in an assortment of styles – grilled personally at your very own table. On top of all that, they offer all you can eat sushi, soba, and soft serve ice cream. This slice of paradise on earth offers all that your heart and stomach could possibly desire – and all for 1200円 ($10～) during lunch hours. Peace on earth, goodwill to men indeed.
After each of us had filled ourselves of about a month’s worth of protein, a few of the guys wanted to hit up a recycle shop and head to the mall for summer clothes and groceries. By the end of the day, we shopped for about two or three hours before deciding to head our separate ways. My roommates would drive back to Yuzawa to meet up with some friends and maybe head to an onsen for the evening, while I would spend the night in Niigata and travel the rest of the next day. The guys were nice enough to drive the extra half-hour or so to Niigata in order to drop me off at the hotel I had reserved near the train station, after which they turned back the way they came to return home.
I had originally intended to explore Niigata city a bit the next day, but after walking nearly all of the streets that seemed to hold anything of interest that evening, I realized that I had seen just about all there was to be seen thereabouts. Luckily, in the process of wandering through the few stores that were still open, I had a conversation with a store clerk about a potential location of interest. He had one recommendation, Yahiko Jinja 弥彦神社, a shrine located about two hours away by train that sat at the base of the small mountains which bordered the sea. Without other plans to occupied my interest, I figured that I’d go ahead and take a chance on this store clerk’s recommendation. Hell, worst case scenario I’d go to the beach.
The next day, I woke up and began packing my backpack early in the morning. Since the sun in Japan begins to rise at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am in the summer, the light coming in through the window is at full force by 8:00 am. Due to this, it had become my unfortunate habit to wake up around an hour before my alarm was set to go off. I headed out, and after picking up a few o-nigiri for breakfast, I headed over to the train station to set off for Yahiko-Jinja.
Before boarding the train, however, I would undoubtedly have to sit and wait quite a while on the platform before the train would arrive. In the more rural regions of Japan, you can’t expect the trains to arrive or depart more than once every hour or so from either direction. When I had first began living in Japan, it never really occurred to me that waiting on train platforms could be enjoyable. At the time, I could only think of the next destination, and each moment waiting was time wasted. If I was traveling with a friend, at least I could kill some time with good company. Back then, traveling alone was far from ideal.
There are a lot of different opinions about traveling alone. From what I’ve gathered through conversations with co-workers at the college and other travelers I’ve run into, the majority have the same hang-ups about traveling alone. Many tend to think that traveling alone would be lonely or boring. They enjoy experiencing new places with company, and can’t really see the point in choosing to go alone over traveling with friends or family. I understand where they’re coming from, and I agree that, at times, I find myself wishing I had brought someone along on my weekend trip. Yet, the most remarkable memories I have of traveling in Japan have primarily occurred when I was traveling alone.
There’s a certain magic about traveling alone if you go about it correctly. After a few hours of settling into your own thoughts, not being pulled back out by trivial conversation, you begin to observe things that would normally escape attention. If you can get used to putting away Netflix and social media, you start to become reacquainted with your own thoughts – with yourself. After spending the previous eight months in college – thinking incessantly of the next test, the next party, the next girl – I didn’t realize it when it was happening, but I had stopped spending quality time with my own thoughts. I’d spent such a long time thinking about the people, problems, and work that it had become uncomfortable, at first, to clear my thoughts of the future and past, and to simply let my mind rest upon the present. To let my thoughts wander where they would, to observe the space around me; to pay attention to the faces and sounds typically register as unimportant background features. Observe the oscillations between pleasure and discomfort, interest and boredom, that are experienced but not often monitored. To search for the source of each state of feeling. It’s hard to find the time and patience to practice this in daily life, but the time spent waiting on train platforms and long rides between destinations provide the rare opportunity to reacquaint yourself with your self.
I boarded the train that would take me to Yakiho-Jinja. Yahiko lies halfway between Nagaoka and Niigata, but quite a ways west from the rails that connect the two cities. Rather than taking the bullet train that could bridge the distance in less than half an hour, I would be riding the local train that patiently eased its way from stop to stop, often without passengers to board or exit the half-vacant train. I would ride fourteen–stops to get off at Yoshida, then ride the next train two-stops further and get off at the very end of the Yahiko-line, at the foot of the arching mountains that border the sea.
Immediately after boarding, I began reading the novel I had brought along to re-read in some of my spare time, East of Eden. I transferred trains after an hour ride, and after another half-hour wait at the next train station I boarded and continued reading. However, after I sat down on this second train, my mind couldn’t seem to settle on the words on the page. After every couple of pages, my thoughts were drawn back from Steinbeck’s writing to the present moment. The soft warm air on my skin. The handful of high-schoolers who lived in these rural parts, returning from club activities. The striking green of rice shooting out of fields of water that remained still as a sea of glass, reflecting the deep blue skies and billowing clouds that speckled the sky. All of this – the entirety of the present – pressed upon my attention and drew me repeatedly from the novel. And after a short while, I gave into the force that was drawing me away from the story that had previously held my attention, to let my mind reside in the present.
The train stopped and most of the train’s passengers got off. A high-schooler that appeared to be around the age of seventeen sat opposite me on the otherwise empty row of seats. It was pretty clear by the way her eyes kept busily wandering across the car, only to find their way back to my direction and rest upon me when she thought I wasn’t aware, that westerners were a rare sight in these parts. After experiencing these kinds of stares countless times, always in areas that tourists seemed to avoid, I have come to understand that it had nothing to do with my looks. Rather, I tend to draw attention due to the fact that I’m a six-foot-three blue eyed American. Particularly in these parts, where the only Americans this girl has seen have most likely been limited to pictures and movies, unless she’s happened to come across some on a visit to Tokyo.
I made sure to seem as if I hadn’t noticed her gaze. It gets a little awkward when you catch someone looking at you a number of times. What can you do to break the tension of being an oddity? I figured early on, when I lived in the Tohoku region, that everyone is more comfortable when you seem unaware and just let whoever look on without making them feel embarrassed about it.
As I looked out the window and gazed at the passing rice fields to avoid the high-school girl’s stare, I couldn’t help but think about the life she must live in the heart of the country, hours away from even the semblance of what could be considered as ‘city-life’. I wondered if she enjoyed it here. Did she dream of moving to the city to run away from her old-fashion, outdated, rural lifestyle? Even if she wanted to leave, does a girl like her have any future prospects in leaving? Or was this exactly what she wanted from life? Maybe life here is beautiful in ways that I’d never even consider. She might never know of the joys of living abroad and experiencing the fast-paced high-intensity life at the centers of human activity – but she might be better off for it. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to lose herself in the process of chasing an empty dream. Perhaps she would live close to the rice fields and be able to know who she was and where she came from and know that it was good. Inevitably, there would be sorrow, loss, and struggle, but who’s to say that modern society has anything more to offer?
As I considered the possibilities of this girl’s hypothetical reality, the train slowed as it approached a small farm town, and the girl got off. I would have been entirely alone in my car of the train if it weren’t from an elderly man and his wife sitting at the other end of the car. I was left with a rare sight; an empty car on a train that slowly cut its way through an ocean of rice fields.
I realized then what an opportunity I would have missed if I had been determined to continue reading my book. I sat in the nearly empty train, and rather than being left with feelings of loneliness, I was impressed upon by the wholeness of myself in the moment. The striking landscape, a reflection of blue skies on water as still as glass, only broken by the thin stalks of rice that shot out of the water, resembled the features of a Rothko painting. My previous consideration of the high-school girl left me deep in thought, my mind wandering with through the openness of the car and my view of the land. I was undisturbed and isolated from care or distraction, where the present moment touched upon the freedom and bliss of the eternal – my first brief encounter with the sacredness of time.
The train began to approach the station. I could only revel in the beauty of the happenstance that provided this personal experience. Finally, I had reached my destination, the village of Yahiko.
 Genkan or 玄関 are the traditional entryways built into every Japanese house, apartment, and just about any other buildings. This is where both the occupants of the house and any visitors remove their shoes before entering.
 Snowfall in Niigata often builds up to 4-5 meters during the late winter.
 Yukiguni or 雪国 was the name coined by the Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, which was the title given to her most renown novel Snow Country, which is set in Niigata Prefecture.
 Multiple studies have shown that when presented with a survey asking for the Japanese to indicate their religion, they often check the boxes for Shinto, Buddhist, and also non-religious. Although most will explicitly admit their ties to with Shintoism and Buddhism, many feel that they are non-religious because Shintoism and Buddhism are individually based spiritual ventures, not institutionally structured like those of organized religions. (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.) In other words, they are spiritual but not religious.
 In Nadeau’s Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective, kami are described “kami are the gods of Japan, and Shinto describes the traditional beliefs and practices associated with these gods. But kami has other meanings too – it is a more complex semantic entity. It can be understood as a concrete noun – in which case it relates to a polytheistic conception of “gods” – or as an abstract noun, meaning “the sacred” – in which capacity it names a sacred quality of existence. Based upon this continuum, we can identify four kinds of kami: 1 mythological creators; 2 exceptional persons; 3 extraordinary things; 4 natural objects and implements.” This includes anyone and anything from the creators Inazagi and Inazami, the imperial family, Mt. Fuji, all the way to water, chopsticks, sake, tea, amongst tens of thousands of other kami. (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.)
 Nedeau pg. 218 (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.)
 Japanese “Recycle Shops” are the American equivalent of thrift shops, except much higher quality and often a broader selection of items.
 Onsen 温泉, are traditional Japanese bath houses.
 O-niriri or おにぎり are Japanese rice balls, covered on the outside with seaweed and filled with a pocket of fish or other mixture of local ingredients.
 Yahiko-Jinja or 弥彦神社 sits at the base of Mt. Yahiko near the western sea. This shrine has had over a 1,200 year history, having been established before the 8th century.
 Tohoku or 東北 is the north-east region of Honshu, the main island of Japan.
A Little about John
John Sorenson is in charge of most things at Manga Sensei and writes articles due to a combination of too many ideas and an overwhelming ability to articulate himself.
by Jessica Hutchison
For a few months, I lived about ten minutes away from Kyoto Station. And man, I missed a lot of experiences there.
But one place I made sure to go to was Kinkakuji. If you know even a little bit about Japan, you’ve probably heard of this place. It’s a Zen Buddhist temple that is almost entirely covered in gold leaf. A lot of people probably had it as their computer background, because some computers had it as a preloaded desktop picture. In any case, you’ve likely seen it. I had too.
So my friends and I picked a day to visit it, and off we went. Ten minutes to Kyoto, then about 45 minutes on a ridiculously hot bus.
Finally we arrived. We paid 400¥ to get in, so my expectations were high. They even gave us these cool tickets that looked like paper talismans. I knew we couldn’t go inside, but I was way excited for this temple.
We walked along the path until we got to the main viewing area. And it was pretty packed with people. The crowd was actually small though, mostly because it was kind of a gloomy day. It’s just a small viewing area.
So in this area, they encourage you to take pictures. Probably because it has the lake and everything right there. It is the most aesthetically pleasing view of the temple. Japanese people are all about the aesthetics. Anyways, I stood in that spot and took the same picture of Kinkakuji that everyone who has visited has taken. Here it is.
If you look up images of Kinkakuji, you’ll see they all pretty much look like this. I had to cut out the lake and part of the first floor though because there were too many people crowded along the rail.
So I took my pictures, and then we walked along the path. It takes you behind the temple, and then up to this rock. We would have totally ignored the rock if we hadn’t overheard the group in front of us.
There was a Japanese businessman who was clearly trying to impress an American businessman on his trip to Kyoto. They stopped at the rock, and the Japanese man explained that the rock was meant for royalty to sit and enjoy another aesthetically pleasing view of the temple. The American man laughed awkwardly and politely refused.
Of course, the moment they moved on, we took pictures sitting on the rock. The view was pretty nice, I have to admit. I felt very special.
So then we moved to the end of the path and found all the mochi vendors. I bought mochi and I highly recommend it. Kyoto has the best mochi, hands down.
Then we left. And I found myself mildly disappointed. All I got out of the trip was some mochi I could have bought anywhere in Kyoto, and a stock photo.
Overall, the best part of the trip was the mochi. I couldn’t really figure out why I was so bummed out about it.
But here’s what I wish I had known about Kinkakuji.
First off, Kinkakuji is not just about the building. One major part of Japanese architecture is emphasizing the nature around it. The importance of nature is probably a combination of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, but you can really see it in all Japanese design.
If you ever go to a Japanese garden, it is amazing how much care is put into making sure everything looks perfect. I even went to one where they had purchased the mountain behind the garden so they could shape the trees in the background as well. Talk about dedication.
Kinkakuji is a pavilion that is surrounded by a carefully manicured Muromachi style garden. It’s very minimalistic, and I totally missed it. I wish I had stopped and spent some time to enjoy the path, as it is part of the experience just as much as the pavilion itself.
Even the lake in front of the temple was designed to reflect the temple perfectly. Looking back at my pictures, I can even see how the trees around the temple are meant to frame it. Nothing is a coincidence in a place like this.
When looking at other examples of Japanese architecture, it’s a bit easier to see that the building is not always the center of attention. Japanese buildings use a lot of natural wood and white walls. The plainness emphasizes how the building is part of the nature around it.
In that way, I now find Kinkakuji a little funny. It’s so ostentatious compared to other Japanese buildings. Of course, there’s a lot of bright red Japanese structures, especially when they are related to Shintoism, but pure gold? Someone is showing off here.
Another thing I wish I had known is how varied the architecture of the pavilion actually is. The first floor is done in a classical Heian style (11th century). The second floor is more of an aristocratic samurai style from a bit later (probably 13th century). The third floor is a more Chinese-influenced Muromachi style (14th Century). When you look at each floor carefully, it is pretty obvious that they are different. But if you don’t know that, you might not be able to tell. I certainly couldn’t. The structure itself takes you on a little trip through Japanese history.
I also wish I had known the history of the pavilion. Knowing the history of a place can really change your perspective on it.
The pavilion actually wasn’t a temple when it was first built. Like Ginkakuji, it was built as a sort of retreat for a wealthy family. It was so nice, the shogun at the time, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (the guy in the painting), bought it and used it as his retreat. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their summer sipping tea in a gold house?
Can’t you see this guy hanging out in his super fancy pavilion? It was definitely a place for him to relax.
This fits when you look at the temple and the surrounding garden. The whole area seems more focused on aesthetic appeal than meditative qualities (even though they’ll tell you that it’s supposed to be meditative).
Yoshimitsu’s son is the one who turned it into a Buddhist temple, and it is still an active temple today. There are shrines for bodhisattvas inside and it contains some of Buddha’s ashes. If you visit, you can’t go inside. Partially because it is an active temple, but mostly because that would just be too much traffic for the pavilion to handle.
The fact that this is a Zen Buddhist temple amuses me a bit. Buddhism is all about not being attached to worldly things. In my mind, gold is pretty worldly. But the gold is said to purify the area and cleanse the thoughts of those meditating. I can’t argue that it isn’t pretty.
The pavilion also isn’t original. In the 15th century, during the Onin War (when everything in Kyoto was burned down) everything in the complex except the pavilion was burned down. It was pretty cool that it survived until a monk burned it down in 1950. It was rebuilt in 1955, and the gold leafing is said to be even more absurd than it would have originally been.
Now the pavilion is kept up regularly because a lot of people go see it and they want to keep it looking nice.
When I went to Kinkakuji, I was so focused on seeing a gold building that I ended up disappointing myself. I didn’t take the time to enjoy the entire experience, and I feel like I missed out on most of it, to be perfectly honest. When I left, I was a bit annoyed that I had spent so much money to take a picture I had already seen.
But if I went back today with more knowledge of the history and what experiencing Kinkakuji is really supposed to be, I’m sure I would enjoy it a lot more.
So you want to go to Japan, or you are in Japan and you want to apply for a job. That’s awesome. Congrats on your goal. However, when you look at that nasty blank template, the dreaded Japanese resume, that you downloaded from the internet you have absolutely no idea where to start.
You can do it, just start at the top.
氏名 (しめい) This is where you put your name. Remember family name first, then your personal name. IE Smith, John. However, if you do not have kanji in your name then please do not put kanji in this spot. It makes you look like a poser.
男/女 Circle your gender here. 男 = Male and 女 = Female
年 月 日 This will be for the date if listed at the top, (often accompanied by the word 日現在 (にちげんざい)) and under your name this will be for your birthday. Make sure you list things in the correct order. Year, Month, Day. Also, the year should be the Japanese year. If you do not know what year on the Japanese calendar check out this website and figure it out.
満 (まん) This is where you put how old you are.
証明写真 (しょうめい しゃしん) In Japan you will need to take a picture and attach it to your resume. DO NOT SMILE in this picture. Think of multiplication or something else that would make you glaze over and take the picture. This can be done in little picture booths all over whatever city you are in. These machines print the photos in a specific size that will need to be cut and clipped to the resume.
連絡先 (れんらくさき) Contact information. Please put in your email. Sometimes they will have a place for email and a phone number just make sure you have something that they can easily reach you at.
現住所 (げんじゅうしょ) This is your current address.
携帯電話 (けいたい でんわ) Your cell phone number.
学歴 (がくれき) This is your educational history. You do not need to include middle school or things that you completed in high school (unless you are in high school). This would include: your university major, minor and other activities that you may have been part of; also if you received any grants and etc. You may also include a GPA and class ranking if you desire.
職歴 (しょくれき) Similar to your education history, this is your work history. This does not need to be crazy long. Just include, where (company, not location), how long you worked there, and what your position was. You may also write this information as entry and exit dates.
Both of the above will be listed in the same area on the resume. You can either separate them yourself, or you can list them in the chronological order combined. The most recent at the top and going back in time.
免許 (めんきょ) Licenses. If you have Japanese food handlers permit, English teaching Visa or certificate etc. This is where you are going to list it here. Make sure you list anything that may be needed at the job. Things that don’t pertain may not help your chances of getting the job.
資格 (しかく) This is where you can list your JLPT level, TOEFL test scores, TOPIK results if you speak Korea or other certifications.
志望動機 (しぼう どうき) This part can be tricky. I would make sure you have a native speaker look this over because you have to be very succinct. This section is where you tell them why you want this job. I would answer 3 questions:
1. Why you want to work at this business/company
2. Why you want this job position
3. How you can benefit this company
自己PR (じこ) This will often be something that you bring in along with your resume. This is a small 5 paragraph essay, similar to a cover letter, that outline your capacity as a person to do something. This may be how you overcame an educational challenge or something along those lines.
趣味 (しゅみ) Hobbies. You may not want to put that you love cosplaying Sailor Moon, or that you are an unrivaled hotdog eating champion. What you may want to write are things that make you sound impressive. (I’m not kidding they often have this on their resumes)
特技 (とくぎ) Special Skills. Again don’t put that you are double jointed in your shoulders like I am. You may include that you can also speak Russian, or also know how to do HTML even though you are applying for a management position.
There are often other questions or categories. Health or workable hour but that is more the exception rather than the norm.
There’s no better place in Japan than Hida Takayama. Ask foreigners and they will likely never have heard of this small town, nestled in the Japanese Alps. Ask Japanese natives and they will tell you it is a favorite destination for the Japanese to go on vacation. What makes this small town so special? What can you do there, and most importantly–should you go too? Heck yes, you should! And I’m going to tell you why.
Japan’s “Little Kyoto”
Having traveled the length and width of Japan, I can tell you with no uncertainty, that when I go back, the number one place I want to visit is Hida Takayama (飛騨高山). This small town is full of quaint shops made from traditional Japanese homes. There are so many traditional homes and beautiful streets that Takayama is sometimes referred to as “Little Kyoto.” You can spend hours wandering the old streets checking out the homemade sake and miso.
The old streets run nearby Takayama’s river, known as the Miyakawa River. One of the most picturesque locations along the river is the Nakabashi Bridge. It’s impossible to miss with its bright vermillion red paint. In the spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, it is one of the most beautiful places to stop and photograph the scenery in the area.
Festivals in Takayama
Takayama has some of the coolest festivals in Japan. The most famous of these are the Spring and Autumn festivals when the town gathers and a celebration is held, in which floats are taken out of their storage in shrines and displayed throughout the city. Get there early though, because during these festivals the sleepy little town will quadruple overnight. In the spring the floats are from the Hie Shrine located in the southern half of Takayama, and in the fall the floats are taken from the Hachiman Shrine in the northern portion of the city.
The Spring Festival is held every year on the second week of April, and the Fall Festival is held in Mid-October. If you are lucky enough to make it to one of these festivals be sure to keep an eye out for the Karakuri Performance portion of the float parade. The Karakuri are incredible marionette-type dolls that are controlled by masterful puppeteers. Much like the Bunraku of ancient Japan. These Karakuri are unique to Takayama, so it’s well worth it to attend the parade when the Karakuri performances are being held.
If you aren’t able to be in Takayama for the festival, don’t worry, you can still see some of the shrines, called “Yatai” in the local dialect, at the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. The hall is close to the Sakayama Hachimangu Shrine which is also worth taking the time to see.
Festivals in Hida Furukawa
Hida Takayama is very close to its neighbor, Hida Furukawa ( a whole 15 minutes away from Takayama). Because of their close proximity, the main festivals of Hida Furukawa are easily accessible and basically in the same city as Takayama. The three main festivals of Furukawa are:
Hida Furukawa has a “Will-o-the-Wisp” Festival that’s supposed to grant prosperity and a happy home to the people who attend. It’s held on the 4th Saturday in September.
Three Temples Pilgrimage
Another Hida Furukawa festival happens mid-January. This festival is knowns as the “Three Temples Pilgrimage.” The young people who join in are often looking for help in their relationships and make a journey to three temples over the course of the celebration.
The last of the Furukawa festivals I’ll mention here is the “Furukawa Festival,” held on the late to mid-April. This one is particularly interesting considering it’s called one of Japan’s “Naked Festivals.” Whoa, wait, is everyone naked? Thankfully, no. However, the guys in the festival basically just wear a white cotton loincloth as they run around outside. The festival is based around the Okoshi Daiko, an enormous drum that the men beat at they parade it throughout the town.
Things to do in Takayama
There are so many things to do and explore in Takayama. If you only have a few days you’ll have to choose what looks best to you. Here’s a not-so-inclusive list of things to do in Takayama. The options really are endless.
Onsen and Ashi-yu
Japan is a highly volcanic island that sits at the junction of not one, but FOUR tectonic plates! This leads to a very volatile environment in terms of earthquakes, but also has some much more enjoyable effects as well, namely, onsen and ashi-yu. Onsen and ashi-yu are hot springs, but they have been adapted into pools that visitors can soak in and enjoy.
Onsen is for your entire body, and the ashi-yu is for you to dip your feet into. Takayama’s location in the Japanese Alps is the perfect environment for these hot springs because they occur abundantly and naturally in the area. While you do need to get naked to be allowed into the onsen. Never fear, men and women’s sections are separated, and onsen is a very normal part of Japanese culture.
This goes along with the onsen point above. Japanese ryokans are sort of like the Japanese version of a bed and breakfast type establishment. They are traditional inns that often have their own onsen for their guests to enjoy. Some ryokan even offer very nice meals called Kaiseki. Kaiseki can range from the lower end of the price range, to extremely expensive. Whether you’re on a budget or wanting to splurge, a ryokan is a super popular place to stay in Takayama.
Hida Takayama is home to some unique treasures that you can’t find anywhere else in Japan. One of these is the Sarubobo. “Saru” means “monkey” and “bobo” means “baby” in the local dialect, so, monkey baby. These small red figures have their origins because of the monkeys that live in the area.
The story goes that the local monkeys were sneaking into people’s houses and stealing their babies for food. The locals decided to put an end to this and began creating sarubobo dolls and placing them in the infant’s beds. The monkeys would come and take the sarubobo doll instead of the baby, and the babies remained safe. They are seen as a symbol of protection today and are sold throughout the town.
I also recently learned of an adorable, alternative, type sarubobo. At the Takayama Usagi House, you can get sarubobo dolls that look like little rabbits! These are incredibly unique and you can bet it’s on my list of places to visit next time I’m in Takayama.
Miyagawa Morning Market
The Japanese are morning people for sure. It’s not called the “Land of the Rising Sun” for nothing. The Miyagawa Morning Market is a great place to check out what the locals are selling. It’s inexpensive to buy good food here, so it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in town. If you’re ambitious and get there around 6 am, you can watch the locals set up shop.
Most places in Japan have a regional food they are known for. Hida Takayama is famous for their incredible quality beef—hida gyu. Think Kobe beef, but not quite as expensive. While it might still cost a bit to get a good meal with hida gyu, it’s something you can’t miss out on in Takayama. Hida gyu is also slightly less expensive if you buy it in Hida Takayama because it is local to the region. If you’re looking for cheap hida gyu, there’s a stall in the old town by the southern red bridge that sells some awesome hida gyu kebabs. They’re amazing and about as cheap as you can get hida gyu.
Another great place to try out is Chika Soba. It’s some of the most amazing tsukemen you can get in Takayama, and this is coming from a true tsukemen snob. Tsukemen is a type of ramen, but instead of noodles coming to you already soaking in broth, the noodles are placed in their own bowl, with a hot bowl of thick broth to dip them in. Trust me, it’s good.
Hida no Sato (Folk Village)
About a mile from the Takayama train station is the folk village of Hida no Sato. These traditional, thatched roof houses showcase a bit of what life was like during the Edo period of Japan. People in the folk village still do demonstrations of traditional skills that would have been used during the Edo time period, including dying fabrics and lacquer techniques.
Despite the endless things to do in Hida Takayama, you’ll definitely want to check out the surrounding areas as there are some super amazing things to do nearby.
Not far from Takayama is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go. Some of these beautiful and picturesque thatched-roof homes have been around for over 250 years. They are reminiscent of what life was like in Japan hundreds of years ago, and their steep roofs are for keeping snow to a minimum when the harsh winters roll through the area. It’s the only place I regret not seeing when we were in Takayama.
Nestled between Matsumoto and Takayama is Kamikochi. It’s a beautiful alpine park system that’s very popular with hikers looking to take their adventurous spirit to the mountains. There are places to stay nearby if you are looking to turn it into a longer hiking experience. Just make sure to constantly be aware of your surroundings, Japan has many volcanoes and you should always be aware of any gases or if you feel anything unusual.
Why You Should Go
Aside from the myriad of other things I’ve mentioned in this post, one of the biggest reasons to visit Hida Takayama is to get off the well-beaten tourist path of most foreigners. Will it be harder to communicate outside of Tokyo—yes. However, Hida Takayama is a place where you can get a true feel for what life is like in Japan without the noise of a big city. Everyone’s wanted to see Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, but it’s an amazing experience to explore and get to a small town that’s not on everyone’s travel list.
Time in Japanese can be a easy thing to mess up. Which is why we made this easily printable 100% perfect reference. Make things just that much easier.
Watch out for the small ‘っ’ it can throw you off if you are not careful. Also remember that in minutes number 2, 5, 7, and 9 are Fun（ふん） not Pun （ぷん）. I
When you want to make the time for a period you just attach 間/かん. For Example: A Week 週間/しゅうかんAn Hour 時間/じかんA Year 年間/ねんかん The Exceptions are:SecondDayMonth. Which don’t require the 間.
Minute 分/ぷん ぶん ふん
Day 日/にち or ひ
Year 年/ねん or とし
If you go to Japan, you’ll notice that they do a lot of things differently. Even though they seem out of place to us, they are actually pretty normal there, and Japanese people probably don’t even know we think it’s weird.
One thing that threw me off when I first got there was how many people were wearing masks. Like, the surgical kind. In America, I had only seen doctors wear them for surgery. But in Japan, people were wearing them everywhere.
So I started asking people why they wore masks. When you’re a foreigner, you can ask a lot of dumb questions and nobody really cares. Honestly, no one really seemed to mind me asking, so you could probably ask too. But if you’re wondering, here’s a few of the main reasons Japanese people wear surgical masks.
1. They’re sick.
This is probably the most common reason I saw people wearing masks. It’s polite in Japan to wear a mask when you are sick. They don’t really think it will stop the germs from spreading (because it probably won’t), but it’s a way to tell people to be careful around them.
Japanese people really don’t hide the fact they are sick. In fact, instead of asking “How are you?” the general phrase is “Are you healthy?” To which it is perfectly acceptable to reply, “I’m sick.” Wearing masks is kind of like a public service when you’re sick, so other people can be careful and not catch whatever you have.
Sometimes when you go into hospitals, they’ll ask you to put a mask on too. They do offer a bit of protection, so that could be why. I never really asked. I just did what they told me to. Japanese hospitals intimidate me.
People will also wear masks if they have seasonal allergies. This actually does help a bit, so it’s more for the wearer than the people around them. A funny story, though: one time a Japanese woman told me that pollen only existed in Japan. Therefore only Japanese people would have pollen allergies. I guess that means I must be a little Japanese, because spring is the worst.
2.They aren’t wearing makeup.
A surprisingly silly reason, yes. But a valid reason, I think.
I was at a train station once when I started chatting with some college girls. They were both wearing masks, and it was winter. So I asked if they had a cold. Both of them started laughing. Apparently, they just didn’t want to put on makeup, so instead they put masks on. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do that here?
Japanese people will also wear masks if they have something on their face they are embarrassed of, like acne. I had a friend who got a new moisturizer. Unfortunately, she had a bad reaction to it, and she broke out all over the side of her face. Her easy fix was to just wear a mask until it went away. Whenever people asked her if she was sick or something, she just told them about the breakout.
This one isn’t limited to girls. Even guys will wear masks if they want to hide something on their face.
3. They’re cold.
I didn’t really get this reason until I tried it. When I lived in Japan, I biked everywhere. And Japan has really cold, really humid winters. If you’ve never lived through a humid winter, count yourself lucky.
Anyways, I was talking to my neighbor one day about how cold my face would get while biking around, and she suggested I wear a mask. If you’ve ever worn a mask for a long time, you probably know that your face can literally sweat from everywhere. Wearing a mask in the summer can be unbearable. But during the winter, it’s like heaven.
I started wearing a mask, and it made a huge difference. I asked around a bit, and found out a lot of people did it. It made me really sad when I came back to America and couldn’t do that anymore. Seriously, if you wear a mask here, people think you are dying of some terrible disease. My solution here is to just wrap a scarf around my face, but it’s not nearly as convenient.
4. They’re cleaning.
This is the reason most Americans expect. Besides doctor’s, the only other people I’d seen wear masks were doing some heavy duty cleaning, or something that involved harsh chemicals. We sometimes wear masks to avoid breathing in dust, and Japanese people do the same.
The only difference is that masks are so much easier to find in Japan. Seriously, you can get them at the dollar store.
5. They want to look cool. Or ignore you.
Masks in Japan are so common, they have almost become like an accessory. You can get super cute masks with animal faces or flowers on them. It’s not uncommon for people to wear them just because they want to. Besides the usually white and blue surgical masks, you can find all sort of reusable masks that definitely seem like they are more for fashion than function.
Sometimes people will wear them so people don’t talk to them. Not being able to see someone’s mouth when you’re talking to them is surprisingly off-putting. It kind of puts a barrier between you, and it’s pretty effective if they are avoiding conversation. Besides, most people will assume they’re sick and keep their distance anyways.
If they don’t want people to recognize them, a mask is a good way to go too. A lot of famous people live in Tokyo. A lot of those people don’t want to be mobbed by fans everytime they go to the grocery store. Wearing a mask can help them protect their privacy.
So if you see a Japanese person wearing a mask (which you will), these may be some of the reasons for it. Wearing masks is super common in Japan, and it’s really not rude if you want to ask.
Masks have a lot of different uses. I personally loved wearing them during the winter, and really wish we wore them more in America. I think it’s great to be able to tell people you’re sick without even saying anything, and avoiding conversations can be pretty nice too. Japanese people really got this one right.
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By Jessica Hutchison Recently in Japanese media, supernatural beings have become pretty popular. Well, I say recently, but they’ve really been popular for the last few hundred years. Japan has some amazing ghost stories, and it is well known for them. If you…
Photographer: Conor Bodily By John Sorenson Making travel plans in a foreign country can be downright terrifying. You never know what you’re getting yourself into without having experience yourself. It can be difficult to get a straight answer to the most basic questions,…
By Jessica Hutchison Japan has a lot of unique holidays. From O-Bon to Children’s Day to the Emperor’s Birthday, it can be a bit hard for a foreigner to keep track of all of them. But there are a few that the Japanese have adopted…
Alright guys, buckle up. I’m about to lay down some truth about samurai. When a lot of people think of Japan, there’s probably a few things that come to mind. Sushi, ramen, and other Japanese food is probably pretty high on the list. Maybe…
by Jessica Hutchison A long, long time ago there was an old man and an old woman. They were poor, had no kids, and lived in the middle of nowhere. This is how every Japanese folktale starts so you might want to just commit that…
Jessica Hutchison Whenever you’re working in a foreign country, you’re going to run into different customs. I mean, even America can have some strange business customs. It’s good to understand the culture you are getting into, not just so you can impress a potential…
Jessica Hutchison In order to understand any culture, learning the history can really help. And Japan is no different. Japan has a wild history with dramatic changes in culture, government, and how they feel about foreigners. Figuring this out can really help you see where…
by Jessica Hutchison Geisha are a popular image of Japan. Most people who see a geisha, even if they aren’t familiar with the term, will probably associate her with Japan. However, people in the West also have a rather large misconception when it comes to…
by Jessica Hutchison If you really want to understand Japanese culture, one of the things you really need to get is where you stand. Knowing your social standing in any sort of group situation dictates everything you do, including how you speak. We can coast…
Ramen is reminiscent of the cheap food from your college dorm room days, but not all ramen is created equal. In Japan, ramen is nothing like the dehydrated noodles with sad flavor packs we know in America. Check out how much better ramen can be than that sad, boring bowl you’re munching on right now.
By John Sorenson There are a lot of pitfalls involved in learning a new language. Learning a massive amount of vocabulary, developing new reading and writing skills, and practicing proper pronunciation are all difficulties that just about everyone is aware of when they begin to…
Special diets are hard. And traveling abroad with any sort of dietary restriction—especially in a country that doesn’t speak English—can seem impossible. But it is doable! Having lived in Japan for over a month on a gluten-free diet, I am here to give you some…
Due north of Tokyo, Niigata Prefecture lies on the western face of Japan, bordering the sea. Niigata’s terrain is carved with enormous mountain passes that mark the northern end of the Japanese alps. These soaring slopes are covered with heavy snowfall in the winter months,…
by Jessica Hutchison For a few months, I lived about ten minutes away from Kyoto Station. And man, I missed a lot of experiences there. But one place I made sure to go to was Kinkakuji. If you know even a little bit about…
So you want to go to Japan, or you are in Japan and you want to apply for a job. That’s awesome. Congrats on your goal. However, when you look at that nasty blank template that you downloaded from the internet you have absolutely no idea where to start.
There’s no better place in Japan than Hida Takayama. Ask foreigners and they will likely never have heard of this small town, nestled in the Japanese Alps. Ask Japanese natives and they will tell you it is a favorite destination for the Japanese to go…
Time in Japanese can be a easy thing to mess up. Which is why we made this easily printable 100% perfect reference. Make things just that much easier. Watch out for the small ‘っ’ it can throw you off if you are not careful….
If you go to Japan, you’ll notice that they do a lot of things differently. Even though they seem out of place to us, they are actually pretty normal there, and Japanese people probably don’t even know we think it’s weird. One thing that…