Learning Japanese:What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Two years ago when we arrived in Japan, I devised what I believed was the perfect language acquisition strategy. I would use my Rosetta Stone application for an hour every day, read and write kanji for an hour every other day, and “absorb” the language through my everyday interaction with Japanese society. I had to pat myself on the back for being so brilliant. Brilliantly naive.

A few weeks later, I dropped the Rosetta Stone from my plan. I always hated it anyway; it was annoyingly repetitive and the stuff it was “teaching” me was 90% stuff I already knew. Next to go was writing kanji. Why should I learn to write kanji when the majority of the time I use it is behind a keyboard? For the next few months I focused on reading kanji, which was mostly instant gratification given my bent toward visual learning. But once I hit 600 kanji and the new ones become more complex or too similar to ones I already learned, it became a chore to learn new kanji and I quit studying that too.

Which left me with absorbing the language through everyday interaction with Japanese society. Which is a complete and utter sham. As it turns out, there is only so much you can learn from a 15 word interaction with the grocery store cashier or train station attendant. And most of it is “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? My Japanese is poor.”

So a few weeks ago, I finally admitted defeat, swallowed my pride, and went crawling back on hands and knees to where I should have started all along: with a Japanese tutor. My Japanese tutor is the sweetest, most gentle teacher one could ever hope for. Yet showing up at my lesson still feels like climbing into the dentist chair for a root canal.

Because learning Japanese is painfully difficult. The language itself is fairly straight-forward and follows more rules than English by far. But the context of Japanese and the different sets of vocabulary and word forms based on who you are speaking to is mind boggling. This is why I believe some Japanese people prefer to learn English, which is for the most part, a one-form-fits-all kind of language.

But I have already learned some important things only a few weeks into my lessons (apart from Japanese grammar and vocabulary). I hope these lessons are helpful to you as well if you consider whether or not to study Japanese.

I know more than I think I do. My Japanese tutor coaxes me (she’s too gentle to demand) to express myself in Japanese. As it turns out, I can say quite a bit in Japanese, though it doesn’t come naturally and I struggle with finding the right words and sentence formations. But if I don’t practice, it never comes naturally, so as much as I hate to verbalize in Japanese, I do it in conversation with her. And I hope it becomes more comfortable soon where I can also try it with others.

There is a strong connection between speaking and listening. My biggest worry has been that I have been slow at improving my aural comprehension of Japanese. From the time we arrived here to the time I started my lessons, I probably improved my listening skills from about 15% of what I heard to 30% in two years. In the past 3 weeks alone, I realized that my listening skills have already improved noticeably, though my focus has been on speaking and writing. I can easily imagine my aural comprehension reaching 60-70% within 6 months if I remain diligent.

There is a strong connection between reading and writing. My biggest mistake in learning kanji was to stop writing it. When I look back at the kanji that I practiced writing, I still remember almost all of them. The practice of writing definitely ingrains the image of the kanji in your head so when you see it, you recognize it. My tutor has me writing a journal in Japanese every other day, at least. I actually enjoy it though my vocabulary is small and my sentences sound like something a preschooler would say.

Passive learning can only take you so far. And really, it’s not very far at all. Trying to absorb language through “immersion” only works if you are an active participant. People who live in homestay situations with native speakers and engage in conversation every day will learn a language through immersion. If you are only an observer in social interactions, you won’t learn much. Force yourself to engage and push yourself to learn new vocabulary and grammar so you can be confident in interacting with others. Even if you try to learn by watching TV or listening to the radio, parrot the words you are hearing so you are speaking as well as listening.

You’ll probably regret not studying the language. Looking back, I think about how many more conversations I could have had with people, how much deeper I could connect with acquaintances if only I had started studying Japanese immediately after we arrived here. It’s water under the bridge now, but that doesn’t mean I should let another day go by without trying to become fluent in Japanese. We may not live in Japan forever, so is it really worth wasting the time we have here not being able to communicate with people on a deeper level?

I will still admit, it’s hard to approach language acquisition with eagerness and joy. But I am trying to focus on the goal: the day I can talk about almost anything with anyone I happen to meet, without fear of stumbling over my words or sounding like a child. And that gives me hope.


Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat (Yes, It’s a Thing)

It’s raining today, and being cooped up inside means finding something interesting to do. I remembered a little treat I had in the okashi (snack) cupboard that I had passed many times in the aisles of pretty much every supermarket we shop at, only last time, I picked up a bag.

Japan is famous for a lot of things, but one thing we seem to get the most questions about are the exotic types of Kit Kat flavors that are available here. There is even a gourmet shop in the basement of a department store in nearby Ikebukuro that sells the rarest of flavors at premium prices (think in the neighborhood of $4 per American sized Kit Kat bar).

Kit Kat for common folk used to mainly include only dark chocolate, the ubiquitous matcha (green tea) and more frequently, strawberry. But as of several months ago, a new flavor began showing up regularly: cheesecake. And this was no ordinary cheesecake flavor; the picture on the bag showed a bar after it had been toasted in the oven for a few minutes.



Generally speaking, when it comes to snack food, I’m not one to add any extra steps between the process of getting it from the bag to my mouth. Perhaps that’s why I waited months before actually picking up a bag to try it. When a chat with my friend led to more Kit Kat talk, I remembered my secret stash and decided to give it a try. So here is my report of the “unwrapping” of the Baked Cheesecake Kit Kat.

Opening up the bag, you find 13 cute, individually wrapped Kit Kats. No surprise there. This is Japan, home of the cute and the wrapped. (And also, home of unnecessarily detailed instructions for things you shouldn’t really need instructions for unless you’re an alien being visiting Earth for the first time, in which case you’ve come to the right country.)



The instructions on the wrapper, from what I can make out with my terrible language skills, basically tell you to please use a saucer or tray to toast your Kit Kat in the oven. If you fail to use a saucer or tray and your Kit Kat catches fire and burns your house down, don’t say you weren’t warned. 13 times. Being an American, I completely ignored the instructions and used a piece of foil instead.

I popped the Kit Kat into the oven, turned it on and a few minutes later, voila! Out come the perfectly toasted bars of sweet goodness.



So I know what you really want to know is how they taste. Well, I was skeptical that the the taste of any candy bar could be improved by a few minutes in the toaster oven. And I was completely wrong. It’s hard to completely describe but the flavor reminds me of the top layer of a creme brulee, but with the melty wonder of white chocolate with a hint of cheesecake flavor. It is heaven and I am hooked.

So if you’re not a fan of more traditional Japanese Kit Kat flavors like sakura (cherry) or wasabi (green horseradish), you’ll probably want to give this amazing flavor a try. If I don’t buy them all first.


Navigating Tokyo: What They Don’t Tell You About Taking the Trains

As we welcome visitors to our little city called Tokyo, we have found one of the most common questions is “How do you find your way around this place?” Granted, with over 500 stations across the Tokyo Metropolitan area (and more being added all the time), navigating Tokyo can be a bit tricky. And if getting between two places isn’t hard enough, there are some other factors that you have to take into account as well. Fortunately, there are some solutions out there to make your next rail ride across (or under) town a little less painful.

Things They Don’t Tell You about Taking the Trains

But first, let me digress and explain some of the difficulties of getting around Tokyo that most guidebooks will not tell you about. First of all, though there are often several options to get from point A to point B, there is often a BEST option. This is because every option will vary on three counts: time to destination, cost, and number of transfers. Those are the variables that are easily quantifiable; you can also consider how crowded the train is, how deep the destination station is underground (some stations can take 5 minutes or longer to reach the exit), and many other factors. But let’s consider those variable we can track.

Time to destination is pretty straightforward…or so you would think. The difficulty comes when using trains rather than subways. On a given train line, there are often several different types of trains from local (stops at every station) to limited express (stops at very few stations). There are also various levels of express trains which stop at different stations. Of course, an express train reaches its destination faster, assuming of course, your destination or transfer point is one of its stops. Knowing what type of train stops where and when it passes through each station is an exercise that rivals the highest levels of Sudoku.

Cost is one of those factors which is very difficult for non-residents to understand and plan for, so most guidebooks do not mention it. Basically, the Tokyo train and subway system is operated by several companies including JR, Toei, Keio, Seibu, Tobu, Odakyu and others. If you are able to go from point A to point B using the train or subway of one company, it will always be the cheapest fare. If you need to transfer to another company’s train, it’s going to cost more. In some cases, you might use 3 or even 4 different company’s trains, in which case, your trip is going to be extremely expensive, sometimes 2 or 3 times more than using a single operator’s system.

Japan Rail (JR) is the largest and least expensive of the train lines in Tokyo. Also, if you have a rail pass, you can use the JR system for free. But JR routes are not always the fastest ways to get to your destination, so you have to weigh the cost versus the convenience. Some destinations can’t be reached by a JR train at all (though you probably could use the bus to get to many of those places). Locals learn which companies own the different train and subway lines so they can make a quick estimation of the cheapest way to get somewhere when faced with several options.

Number of transfers is also a big consideration. Besides the potential cost implications previously mentioned, there is also the walking distance between transfer platforms.  Transferring to another train can be as simple as waiting on the same platform for another train or as difficult as navigating a maze of stairs and hallways to get to the transfer platform. Some stations that share the same name can have transfer platforms over 500m (over a quarter mile, for you Americans) from one another. Until you are familiar with all the major stations you use in Tokyo, you won’t know how easy or difficult a transfer will be until you try it. So best bet: keep the number of transfers to a minimum, especially when dealing with luggage.

Tools of the Trade

Back in the day, we used to carry around little books with the maps of all the subway stations and transfer points. Without these books, we were pretty much dead, and even with the books, the likelihood of us taking the most economical route in terms of time or cost was pretty low. Thanks to smart phones (which no sane person who comes to Tokyo should be without), there are two applications that are a huge improvement on paper maps or books: Google Maps and Hyperdia.

First of all, you should know how to use a smart phone when you come to Japan from outside of the country. There are two options, only one of which I have used and can vouch for. This is the mobile WiFi device which you can rent online and pick up from the airport when you arrive. The company of choice for us was Global Advanced Communications, which has provided good devices and offers outstanding service. My only connection with this company is as a satisfied customer and we recommend it to anyone coming to Japan for any length of time. You can connect up to 10 devices to the mobile WiFi and at the time of this writing, it has no limit on data. However, I now understand there is a cheaper way to get Internet service in Japan, which is a SIM card you can purchase for about $40 from one of the big electronic stores. You pop it into your smart phone and it provides you with 2GB of wireless data, which is enough for about a month if you don’t stream video or music. For a single person, this might be the cheapest option though for a couple or family, the mobile WiFi is probably still cheaper.

Now that you have Internet access, you can use the tools. Both Google Maps and Hyperdia are available for iPhones or Android devices. Before we arrived, I was convinced that Google Maps made Hyperdia redundant, but after a couple weeks, I changed my mind. I’ll explain.

Both Google Maps and Hyperdia can give you point to point navigation between two train stations. Of course Google Maps can give you point to point navigation between any two places, but you can tell it you want to take trains (or public transportation) and it will tell you which station is the closest and how to get there (that part of the navigation is considered “beta”, or not completely reliable). Both tools can suggest several options between two stations and tell you how many transfers and how much it will cost. You can also set both tools to tell you what train you need to take to arrive at your destination by a specific time, which is very important because you often are not doing real time searches.

The advantage I found with Hyperdia is the way it displays information. Hyperdia gives you up to 5 options which you can quickly scroll through and see exactly what trains you need to take and where to transfer. It also summarizes the time to destination, cost and number of transfers at the top of each option. Google Maps requires you to select each option one by one to see the details. It’s actually quite a pain and take much longer to figure out what the best option is and sometimes you need to quickly decide if you should jump on a train or not. Another minor complaint about Google Maps is that it is harder to tell what type of train you are taking because the train type (local, express, etc.) is shown in Japanese, not English. If you’re a quick study, this might not be a big deal. But having to look at each option’s details one by one is a big deal and the main reason I still use Hyperdia for 90% of my searches.

One of the main advantages Google Maps has over Hyperdia is that Maps tells you how many stations you need to travel on a specific line (and will expand to give you the names of the stations), so it’s harder to get lost or wonder if you missed your station. Another advantage of Google Maps is that Hyperdia is very picky about how you spell a station name, so if you leave out a space or a dash, it might say it can’t find the station you’re looking for. Google Maps, as you might expect, is better at searching for station names you are not sure exactly how to write or spell.

Are there other apps available out there? Yes, I’m sure there are, but these are the two we have had the most experience and success with. A contest is now in the works ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics for someone to design a new application that is even more user friendly, but I suspect it will be a few years before we see anything. For now, with a smart phone and these two apps loaded up, you should be prepared to go anywhere around Tokyo and beyond without fear.


Everyday Japan – Achieving Perfection

This past weekend, I had the most amazing dessert. A cake, made from high quality matcha (green tea) powder, so delicate and light, without the lingering sugary taste of most American desserts. But what intrigued me most was the label on the box it came in, proudly claiming the company has existed since 1753.

1753. 23 years before the United States was even the United States, this company was making tea. And 261 years later, they were still making tea and exquisite desserts containing tea.

This is one of the amazing things about Japan to me. Shops that make simple things like tea, chopsticks, or handmade paper continue to exist after hundreds of years in the same line of business. One can understand that a company that is able to survive for so long has been able to do something right, and if it involves making the same product the entire time, they are drawing from decades or centuries of previous knowledge to improve upon what they know. Craftsmanship is real in Japan, and it makes its way into the simplest of things, even a slice of cake.

Everyday Japan – Yakitori

Stepping into the narrow smoke-filled alley, I squeeze past a mix of white-shirted “salarymen”, a gaggle of eastern European tourists, and Japanese hipsters snapping pictures with iPhones. On both sides, impossibly narrow shops consisting of a counter, a few bar stools and a charcoal grill are crammed full of people, shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, enjoying a hot summer evening eating yakitori.

Yakitori dining isn’t as much about eating as it is fellowship. It’s a time to get together with friends and throw back a few beers (or something stronger) while dining on skewers of grilled chicken, yakitori. Yakitori can’t necessarily be compared to American BBQ. Yakitori is a chicken head-to-tail delicacy. Yes, there are the old standards of thigh meat, interspersed with Japanese leeks and called “negima” or for the carnivores, just the meat, (momo), grilled wings (tebasaki), and ground chicken (tsukune). But there are also more exotic yakitori: chicken skin (kawa), tails (bonjiri), liver (rebaa), hearts (hato/kokoro), and cartilage (nankotsu).

Outside the West exit of the behemoth Shinjuku Station stands a remnant of the past that remains as popular today as it was when it opened 70 years ago. In fact, it is now called Omoide Yokocho, Memory Alley, in honor of its history, though its actual name in the past was Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. I’ll leave it to your imagination how it got that name. Right after WW2 when food was scarce, entrepreneurial folks set up makeshift stalls outside of Shinjuku Station selling small pieces of chicken meat (and parts) that were easily obtained from Allied occupational forces. These stalls became Omoide Yokocho, and have become such a part of the neighborhood that the community rebuilt the whole area when a fire nearly gutted it in the 1990s.

Quite the opposite of how many people think of Japan, Omoide Yokocho is rowdy and gritty (though not dangerous), full of loud laughter and coarse joking among comrades. Thousands of Japanese salarymen filter through the alley every weeknight, using the easy atmosphere and free-flowing alcohol to blow off steam from their stressful or boring jobs. If the Tokyo workforce seems robotic during the workday, this is a great place to visit to remind yourself that they, like you, are regular human beings who need time to relax and friends to be themselves around.

Everyday Japan – Playground

Today, I rode my bike past this playground made up of a set of swings, a slide, and a few sets of bars. Though fairly well maintained with fresh paint, like 90% of other playgrounds like this around Tokyo, it was completely devoid of kids, even in the middle of Japanese school’s summer vacation.

It occurred to me that if I were a kid, the last thing I would want to do would to be out playing on a metal playground in the middle of summer. Besides the hot sticky summer air, metal play structures capture the heat of the sun and a swing that might be fun in the cool months would probably become a branding iron for your bottom in the summer.

Kids are out playing in the summer heat, but that play often involves sports (perhaps keeping in practice for the school team they participate in) or water play, which is exactly the sort of fun I would love to have in the summer. But for the most part, children are hiding away from the summer heat indoors.

To me, the average Japanese playground seems to be completely disconnected from the audience they are trying to reach: children. How can play areas be restructured to recapture the hearts of children and draw them out to play in the summer? Treehouses built in the protective shade of a grove of trees? Wooden forts with water cannons?


Setagaya Firefly Festival

Today we had a chance to go to our first matsuri as residents of Japan: the Setagaya Firefly Festival. It sounded really cool when I found it on the Internet, but in fact, it was a pretty small neighborhood matsuri. The draw of this matsuri was the fireflies, which they brought in netted cages as well as a big darkened tent you could walk through and see their pulsing glow in the darkness. If you rarely or never see fireflies, it was totally cool. Many Tokyo dwellers who can’t get out to the deep countryside probably never see fireflies anymore.

The taiko troupe that performed was very talented and the rain gave pause for them to give the crowd a treat for about 20 minutes as the opening ceremony. Then it was off to sample the delicious festival foods like dango and takoyaki. Jeremy and Ayumi tried some interesting looking candy that was frozen on a block of ice.

We had the pleasure of having many members of Jayne’s family join us, so it was a good chance to hang out and catch up with everyone for the evening. Of course Japanese festivals are plentiful throughout the summer months (there’s one in the park across from our church tomorrow too) so we’ll be enjoying these for at least the next month or so!


Everyday Japan: Bank Foyer

One of the wonderful things about Japan is the little attention to detail seen in everyday life. A bank foyer is a pretty drab place, but is livened up by this beautiful potted plant ensemble. Since this is the Summer season, the focus is on the ajisai or hydrangea flowers that bloom all over Japan in the Summer months.