Today is 成人の日(seijin no hi), or Coming-of-Age Day here in Japan. It is a day commemorating everyone turning 20 this year (and by ‘this year’, they mean the current school year which started last April and runs through this March). I’ll be 30 this year and most of my friends are about the same age, so unfortunately I don’t personally know anyone who participated in the ceremony at city hall this morning, but in years past I have seen all the young women dressed to the nines in kimono, with elaborate hairstyles. In fact, many Japanese girls prepare for the ceremony by visiting beauty salons very early in the morning, with some salons opening at 5 or 6 am to accommodate the demand.

Yesterday I went to Nara to see 若草山焼き(Wakakusa Yama-yaki). Wakakusa Yama is a set of three very large hills in Nara, and every year, the day before Coming-of-Age Day, they set the mountain ablaze in a religious festival of renewal for the new year. Starting at 17:50, there is a fireworks display which lasts ten minutes. When the fireworks begin, people light their torches from the bonfire and start walking up to the middle of the hill. When the fireworks end, the people set their torches to the ground and the cold, dry grass begins to slowly burn. More information (in Japanese, of course) and pictures at the Nara Prefectural web site: http://www.pref.nara.jp/narakoen/

My friends and I arrived in Nara a few hours before the event, so we walked around to various places. One of my friends had a friend visiting from overseas, so they went to see the famous 東大寺大仏 (Todai-ji Daibutsu), the Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji Temple. Having been to see it myself on more than a few occasions, I opted to go with my other friends to 奈良町 (Nara-machi), which I had not been to before. Nara-machi is the city’s old merchant district and reminded me of Kyoto’s Gion, though on a much smaller scale. The stores and homes are very old, and walking down the streets of the area feel like taking a trip into the past. We visited the 春鹿 (Harushika: spring deer) sake brewery. For a mere ¥400 we were able to sample five of the different varieties of sake produced there. Sake sampling is called きき酒 (kikizake) in Japanese, and the term can even apply to wine tasting, since sake refers not only to 日本酒 (nihonshu), but to all alcoholic drinks. I enjoyed all five samples and after those, they served us a sweet sparkling sake, too. When we left, we were given a bag to carry home the glass sake cups we had drank from. At the bottom of the glass is the image of a deer, for which Nara is famous. For more on Nara-machi (again, in Japanese), see this site: http://www.naramachi.jp/

Happy New Year from Osaka!

あけましておめでとうございます! With the exception of being sick the past day or so, I’ve had a great oh-eight so far and I’d like to tell you all about it.

I spent New Years with my Japanese friend and her family. For New Years Eve, we went to 初詣 (hatsumode) at 大阪天満宮 (Osaka Tenmangu) shrine. Hatsumode is the first visit of the new year to a Shinto shrine. Most people go during one of the first three days of the new year, but a lot of people go just after midnight like we did. We got off to a bit of a late start, arriving at our station right at 12:00 am. Usually the last train leaving the station for the city departs not long after midnight, but on this one day of the year the trains run all night to accommodate all of the people going to hatsumode. We got off the train at Osaka Tenmangu station and began the walk down the 天神橋筋商店街 (Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai) towards the shrine. Shotengai are long, covered shopping arcades, and the Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai at 2.6 km is the longest in Japan. Naturally, there was a huge crowd of people and we did not reach the front of the shrine until almost two in the morning. Once at the front, we tossed a five yen coin (usually there’s a box, but I couldn’t see past the front barrier so for all I know everyone was throwing their money onto the ground), clapped our hands together and prayed for a good new year. After squeezing through the throng at the front, we lined up to buy お神籤 (omikuji). Omikuji are fortunes, which come in different levels of good and bad. Most of us got pretty decent fortunes, but unless you get the best kind, most people fold the paper up and tie it to a nearby tree, which we all did.

The next day I joined my friend and her parents at her uncle’s house for lunch, before returning to her parents’ house for dinner. Both meals were the same: お節料理 (osechi-ryori). Osechi-ryori is traditional Japanese New Year’s food and all of the food has some sort of symbolic, usually prosperous, meaning. We also drank a lot of champagne, wine and sake. It felt like we ate and drank the entire day!

At lunch that day my friend’s uncle invited us all to join him in Kyoto the next day. His friend from jr. high school married a member of the extended Japanese royal family and they live in a very nice, large house that’s over 200 years old, just north of the old Imperial Palace. He was going there to have dinner (osechi-ryori, again!) with his friend. Even among the Japanese, very few people ever get to see the house, so it was a real honor to be invited. The estate houses a large number of national treasures, including the boxes in which our food was served that evening. We ate and drank (including sake with gold flakes in it!) and after dinner were given a brief tour of the house by our host. Because it was so late, it was too dark to tour the grounds so our host told us he would have us over again. I’m really looking forward to that!

Some 素晴らしい Study-Aids!

As I mentioned in my inaugural post, my goal with my contribution to this blog is to profile a year in Osaka and the surrounding Kansai area. To that end, I will wait until the new year to start talking about my travel and cultural experiences. But in the meantime, I’d like to talk about a few study aids that have helped me and that maybe can be helpful to you, too.

1.) 漢字そのまま楽引き辞典 (kanji sono mama rakubiki jiten)
The ability to quickly look up words is vital to the study of any language, but Japanese, with its thousands of characters, can be especially problematic. When I first started my year abroad in Chiba, I went to Yodobashi Camera and bought a Sharp electronic dictionary. Typing words in English was simple, as was looking up Japanese words in hiragana or katakana. But, what always gave me a headache was looking up unknown terms for which I had only the kanji to go by, for example: 辞書. Looking up the kanji usually involved two steps. The first was to count and enter the number of strokes in the radical. Determining the radical is a little difficult at first, but once you become more familiar with kanji, it’s fairly intuitive. In this case, the radical is the left half of the kanji, 舌, which has six strokes. Next, I had to enter the total number of strokes for the kanji which, here, is thirteen. After I put this information in, the dictionary displayed every kanji in its database with the radical in question and a stroke count of thirteen. If I was lucky, it would return only a few matching characters. If I was not so lucky, I had to go through more than a few screens before locating the correct one. Once I had finally found it, I would hit the enter button to be taken to that kanji’s page where I could see its various readings and other information. Unfortunately, the dictionary lacked the ability to input more than one kanji, so I had to rely on another button that displayed a list of common words featuring the kanji I had just looked up. Eventually, after scanning over a few, a dozen, or a few dozen words, I could usually find what I was looking for. If I then pressed the enter button the English definition would pop up. A lot of work, huh? And keep in mind this was all for one word! If I encountered several words I didn’t know in the same sentence, I could end up spending five minutes or longer just reading one sentence. And to make things worse, I would often forget the first word I’d looked up by the time I got to the end of the sentence. Needless to say, it was all a bit discouraging.

Then, last year, I discovered 漢字そのまま楽引き辞典. This program for the Nintendo DS has been without a doubt the most helpful tool to me personally in my study of Japanese. It employs the same Genius series of dictionaries that most electronic dictionaries use, but takes full advantage of the DS touch screen so that looking up kanji requires only a few seconds of your time. You simply write the kanji on the screen and the pages of the animated dictionary flip to the relevant entry. There are two side-by-side writing fields, and as soon as you write a new character, the other disappears to make room for you to enter yet another, should the word contain three or more characters. I can now breeze through sentences, taking minimal time away from my train of thought to find a definition. And if I do forget a word I just saw, I can hit the L and R buttons to cycle through recently displayed entries, which saves me the effort of re-writing it. I owe my recent surge in reading to this program, and it also has the added benefit of improving kanji retention, with all the writing practice you get inputting characters.

The only drawback to the majority of you is that this program is actually aimed at Japanese learners of English, rather than foreigners studying Japanese, and is sold only in Japan. So if you come to Japan, I highly recommend picking it up. But for those of you without immediate travel plans, the program is available through other channels. Since the dawn of the video game industry, there have been companies who thrive selling games exclusive to Japan. And since Nintendo DS games are universally compatible, anything purchased here will work on your machine. The program’s official site (http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ds/arjj/) is only in Japanese, but if you click on the first button (the one with the red arrow) you can see what the program looks like and even watch a demo video.

2.) Perapera-kun
While an efficient dictionary is a great tool for reading books, it’s less useful when you want to read webpages in Japanese, especially if you have a laptop. After all, no one wants to prop a DS up on their keyboard. For a long while I, like many other students of Japanese, was using Jim Breen’s online Japanese dictionary page. A simple copy and paste of any Japanese into the translation field would yield a list of definitions for all the words contained therein. While the definitions were always very good, and even translated slang and other obscure terms, the page wasn’t always perfect. Sometimes it would combine two kanji from successive terms into a single word and give you that definition instead. Sometimes it would fail to recognize conjugations. Still, it was faster than looking up the words one at a time elsewhere. But I always wished there was a way that I could simply hover my mouse cursor over a word and get a definition, bypassing all the terms I already knew and without needing a separate webpage. Then, my wish came true. I recently learned from a fellow JET about a plug-in for Firefox called Perapera-kun. Perapera-kun is actually a modified version of another plug-in called Rikai-chan. While the former slightly extends the functionality of the latter, and thus is my preferred choice, they both essentially perform the same job. When you toggle the plug-in on and hover your mouse cursor over a Japanese word, a little window pops up over the word, giving you the definition. Probably the greatest feature of the plug-in is its ability to recognize where a word begins and ends. Since there are no spaces between Japanese words, it can sometimes be difficult for programs (not to mention us!) to distinguish one word from the next. But, with Perapera-kun, it’s not a problem. I can now read newspaper articles and blogs in Japanese a lot quicker.

If you use Firefox and want to give Perapera-kun a try, follow this link to download the plug-in: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3343 Because this is a modified version of Rikai-chan which relies on the same dictionary plug-in, you have to download that plug-in for Perapera-kun to function. There are instructions on how to do so on the Perapera-kun page.

3.) Kanji Box
Now I’ve covered two really helpful ways to more quickly read Japanese by getting quick definitions. But an even faster way to read Japanese is to not have to look up words in the first place. And to do that, you need to build a large vocabulary. While I lucked out with the dictionary program on the Nintendo DS, I have yet to come across a good flash card program. I’ve tried a few programs geared at younger Japanese, and they have been helpful, but what I really want is a simple, straightforward set of flash cards, generated randomly and automatically, that I can use to quiz myself. Everyone learns differently; I am a very visual learner, and the more I see something, the better I retain it. A quick Google search will turn up a few hits, but one of the best I’ve found is a Facebook application called Kanji Box, which I only mention because seemingly everyone is on Facebook these days. Once you add the application, you can adjust it to your level, which runs the gamut from beginner to JLPT Level 1. You can run through drills and quizzes on hiragana and katakana, kanji and vocabulary and even tweak how questions and answers are displayed. The only downside is that the drills and quizzes don’t end after a set number, so if you find Kanji Box as addictive as I do, you can end up going at it for far longer than you intended! Also, because the application is dependent on an internet connection, it’s not as convenient for study-on-the-go as it would be were it a DS program – but that’s a minor complaint. http://apps.facebook.com/kanjibox/

(As a side note, if you want to cheat at the Kanji Box, simply run Perapera-kun while doing the vocab quiz and you can hover over the choices and get the right answer every time! Though, this ultimately that defeats the purpose of the flash cards, it’s fun to try!)

I hope this helps some of you in your Japanese studies. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. それじゃ、またな!