How to Japanese On the Road – Guidebooks

I’m in the Japan Times today with a look at how to use Japanese travel guides to study the language while you’re traveling in other countries: “Learn Japanese as you travel the world.”

I wrote the blog post below over seven years ago. I intended to post it while I was traveling abroad in Europe, but the trip was canceled and I never made it. Somehow the post has remained drafted in WordPress despite once losing my entire site to Ukranian hackers (or something), so I thought I’d share it today.

I wish I would’ve had access to a larger selection of travel guides to choose from, and I’d really be more comfortable carrying around a paper copy, to be honest, but the 地球の歩き方 for London and the るるぶ for Paris have helped provide decent overviews for the cities, and I’ll spend the next two weeks planning out the details of a new trip I’ll be making to Europe in October!

I’ll be in the following locations on the following dates, so holler if you’re around and want to buy me a drink or something tasty to eat or to show me a cool museum:

October 6-7 – Brussels
October 7-10 Paris
October 10-13 London
October 13-15 Newcastle
October 15-17 Edinburgh
October 17-18 Dublin

And then I fly back home on October 19. I’m excited!

So enjoy the post below, and damn that final line feels incredibly prescient. :/


If you can speak a bit of Japanese, it makes financial and educational sense to skip the English guidebooks and pick up a local one. Not only will it force you to learn a lot of Japanese, Japan has an enormous selection of guides to choose from (these people love to travel), and the books are about half to a third of the price of English language guidebooks sold in Japan. Lonely Planet and Roughguide will cost 2000-3500 yen, a significant markup compared to the prices back home. In comparison, the local ララチッタ series is only 1200 per volume. They have strategic walking tours in the front (with detailed maps), extended listings in the back, and great, high quality pictures throughout. I picked up a guide to Munich and one to London – the two places where I will most likely be on my own:

As you can see, the guidebook has pretty good coverage of the beer in Munich:

On the previous page there is a walking tour that goes 1) breakfast of white sausages and white beer, 2) Oktoberfest Museum, 3) lunch at Hofbrauhaus, 4) beer omiyage, 5) famous sausages and beer for dinner. No complaints from me.

All Japanese guidebooks come with the added benefit of helping you appear Japanese.



Just a quick post for fun. I had surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn labrum in my hip. It was my first major operation since I had a hernia repair when I was four.

I was curious about how to say “labrum” in Japanese, and it turns out the word is 股関節唇 (kokansetsu-shin). (Note: This blog post strikes me as a glimpse into the rich, multilingual inner lives of Japanese doctors.) I remember learning 股関節 (hip joint) in my yoga class in Tokyo, but I’d been using 軟骨 (nankotsu) instead of 唇 (shin) to explain it to Japanese speakers.

This reminds me of a good study strategy: Prepping vocab that you know you’ll likely have to talk about. I am mostly good at this but occasionally lousy. When I was a CIR on the JET Program, I had to interpret for some Lithuanian artists in my town, and I neglected to look up the word for statue and sculpture (彫刻), which was a big mistake. I did not look like a very good interpreter at their welcome party, which was disrupted by a massive Aizu snowfall. Good times.

I’m certain I’ll have to explain my surgery in further detail to coworkers and friends, and now I’m armed with the vocabulary to do so.

Bonus Link: I wish I knew more about medicine to understand this article, which seems to suggest that Japanese have more labral tears in normal shaped hips. (Some labral tears are due to congenital formations that impinge on the cartilage.) Maybe because of all the 正座 and squatting?

So far my recovery is going smoothly.

Cool Word – 触れ合う


I’ve got another article in the Japan Times today: “Being laughed at can help your Japanese evolve.”

Two months in a row! I’m on a role. But long-time readers will notice that I’ve really just mined content from two of my favorite posts: The Apper-ative Tense (blatant misuse of the word “tense” there) and 笑われていいとも!

Yer getting lazy, Morales! I did add a pretty sweet metaphor with that caveman thing, though.

At any rate, I’ve been laughed at more recently. On my first day of work here in Chicago, the guy in the neighboring office came over to say hello and introduce himself. We talked, and I mentioned how I hadn’t had many opportunities to use Japanese in New Orleans: 日本人と触れ合う機会が非常に少なかった。

He paused for a moment and then, with an inquisitive look on his face, mimed hugging someone.

I had that momentary fear, that shiver of embarrassment, and I questioned whether or not I knew the actual meaning of 触れ合う (ふれあう). “Did I just say, ‘I didn’t have any opportunity to rub up on Japanese people?’” I wondered.

So I made a kind of disappointed face and then said, 変な日本語を使っちゃってすみません。To which he laughed.

But now I think he was just taking the piss. A quick check of the definition shows that ふれあう can mean “brush against,” but it can also mean exactly what I thought it meant: “interact with.” It’s one of those words that gets tossed around in organizations that do cultural work, and I remember it getting used a lot in my town when the Lithuanian artists-in-residence were there: They wanted to take advantage of the chance for kids to get involved with art and with foreigners.

So now I have to go back and reconsider what exactly it was that I said that day that was strange. Maybe it was my pronunciation. Or maybe he was just taking the piss.

I think this is the appropriate response to laughter: Pause, reevaluate, continue on. I didn’t let it get to me. I still talk with the guy, and I still talk with others. Whatever you do, don’t let a few silly mistakes force you back into the cave. The cave is dark and lonely and there is no Japanese.

Reading Theory – Notes Increase Retention

When I read Books 1 and 2 of 1Q84, I stormed through them, reading an average of 55 pages a day. I then promptly fell ill and did not venture far beyond the edges of my futon for the next week. (Belated apologies to some of the commenters who commented on that first post – I stopped responding once I got sick.) When I went to write my review of the book, I had a hard time remembering what had happened and an even more difficult time locating passages I wanted to quote. Doh.

For Book 3, I’m reading at a much more leisurely pace. I’m only on page 348 but have been reading for nearly three weeks, which comes to 16 pages a day. One reason I’ve been reading more slowly is that I’ve been writing more notes. Take a look:

I’m using a technique a graduate student recommended to me when I was writing my senior thesis. At the time I was complaining that it felt like Japanese was going in through my eyes and straight out the back of my head – I didn’t feel like I was retaining anything. He suggested writing little notes above paragraphs to summarize the content. They don’t have to be extensive or detailed, but even a little summary of what is happening can help you 1) make sure you are paying attention while you read, 2) make sure you are understanding what you read and 3) find passages later when you are flipping back through.

If you find an important passage or important line, you can write something more detailed. Fortunately I did that for Book 1 and 2, so I had some things to talk about in my review. For Book 3, I’ve been notating it far more extensively, so it should be much easier for me to remember later and write about.

Here’s Why

A few weeks ago, Caught Red-handed wondered why he has so much trouble learning katakana. He and his commenters hint at some of the problems – lack of exposure being the main culprit – but I don’t think anyone hit at the central issue: it’s naive to assume that katakana words should be easy to learn just because they are phonetic.

The key thing to realize is that when you read a language fluently, you never read the individual parts of words. Think about it in English for a second. When you look at the word “when,” you aren’t thinking “OK, double-u and silent h makes a ‘we’ sound. Ends with ‘n,’ so it’s pronounced ‘wen.’” You recognize it as its own entity and you have a pronunciation and meaning associated with the set of squiggles that take the shape of “when” – a gestalt.

Sure, katakana make it slightly easier than English because you can read out the, more or less, exact pronunciation if you slow down, but when you read, I’m willing to be that you brain can’t differentiate between a katakana word, an English word or a kanji compound – to your brain they are all just arbitrary pictograms.

This provides the answer to the question: start treating katakana words more like kanji compounds and you’ll have more success. If you treat them like a set of phonetic characters to be mastered in the first few months of language study, they will bite you in the ass. If you treat them like real words – gestalt made of random lines and curves – then you’ll have no problem. Rather than studying them individually part by part, it’s important to start seeing them as groups of characters that form unified entities.

Honestly, I wish I had realized this earlier. I went through the exact same troubles with katakana, and unfortunately for me, the only cure has been time. With the advent of SRS programs, it would be easy to start a separate file for katakana words, quiz the hell out of yourself and end up a master in no time.

(On a side note, I think a lot of people kind of ignore katakana once they’ve learned a word as a gestalt. One of my professors jumped on everyone in my class for mispronouncing ボタン. I think we were all saying something closer to ブタン. Make sure you’re taking the time to hit every mora. Not only will it improve your pronunciation, it’s also fun to say foreign words in a super Japanese accent. I love over-exaggerating loanwords. A good example is one of Murakami’s choice whiskies – カティーサーク. Make sure to drag out that long ア sound in the サーク.)

(And, yes, that word gestalt is awesome and should be used whenever possible.)

Just Read It

(Updated with links to books on Amazon Japan because I was lazy on Friday. Used copies of 夜のくもざる going for 1 yen!)

I’ve read 450+ Japanese pages over the past week, probably more than double the amount I read over the previous two months, and I can feel a tangible improvement in my spoken Japanese. Yes, you read that correctly. Spoken Japanese. I’m sure that my reading abilities have gone up, which makes sense, but over the last few days I’ve also noticed that phrases and patterns seem to come to me more quickly than they did last week. A couple of thoughts about this phenomenon and reading in general:

– At some point you have to make the leap. Once you have some kanji under your belt, you need to put down the dictionary and start reading for length of time and volume rather than complete understanding. Why length of time? You need to train your eyeballs to read vertically. When you first start reading vertically, you’ll actually be zig-zagging slightly to the left and right as you take in the characters. One of my Japanese teachers said this is why your eyes get tired more quickly at first. The more time you spend reading, the faster your eyes will train themselves to recognize kanji without straying from the invisible center line. Why volume? It builds confidence. It’s important to feel like you’re making progress with reading. This doesn’t mean that you should stop looking up words (definitely look them up if it’s very important), but if you can get most of the meaning without looking up a word, then you can skip it. (This is, by the way, exactly what we all do in our native languages – context provides great usage examples and a lot of meaning.)

– As for why reading helps improve spoken Japanese, I’m not exactly sure. I like to think it’s because, magically, the grammar patterns are imprinted on my brain pudding, enabling it to function more naturally in Japanese. I’m sure this is the case to a certain extent. Perhaps the net effect of reading on speaking varies by person depending on how much they vocalize internally as they read. I don’t think I vocalize much at all (constantly skip over readings I understand but don’t know, probably swallow patterns in big chunks rather than word by word), but I still feel better about my spoken Japanese than I have in weeks. Mmm…brain pudding.

– There are limitations to this approach: for whatever reason my conversation topics are limited to religious cults, the NHK collection man, Czech classical music, and gin and tonics.

– Kanji shouldn’t be studied. Just keep reading and get used to them. Matt explains far more articulately here.

– Start with shorter material and work your way up to the big guns. If you try to start reading with Wind-up Bird Chronicle (or the Japanese translation of Pynchon’s V…I actually did look briefly at the translation before realizing I wasn’t going to pay $60 for a book that was difficult in English), you are setting yourself up for defeat. Start with some short stories. One of the best collections for beginners is Murakami’s 『夜のくもざる』(“Night of the Spider Monkey”), which is a collection of “super-short stories” (超短編小説). Each story is only 2-3 pages long, so you can get that “Whew, I finished reading” feeling without going for hours and hours. The one downside of this collection is that all the stories are weird. Like, super weird. Kaori Ekuni has a couple short story collections that might be good for first-time readers, one of which has the funny English title on the book “It’s not safe or suitable to swim” (『泳ぐのに、安全でも適切でもありません』). Anyone know any other good reads for beginners?

– In the end, though, nothing is as satisfying as reading a full length novel. Or at least a nice big fat story like an Akutagawa Prize winner. The first book I ever read from start to finish in Japanese was 『蹴りたい背中』(“The Back I Want to Kick”) by Risa Wataya who won the prize in 2004 when she was 18. Shortly thereafter I read 『蛇にピアス』 (“Snakes and Earrings”) by Hitomi Kanehara who shared the prize with Wataya. They aren’t all that long – I could probably finish them in half a day now – but they each took me several weeks to finish back then when I read at the pace of 5 pages a day. I looked up every word and there were many passages I wrestled with, but it was worth it. (I should admit that I was meeting with a professor once a week to go over any questions. She helped me out with a lot of the patterns I was unfamiliar with. Maybe if there are enough beginner readers around Tokyo we could start some sort of group. I’d be glad to lend a hand if anyone’s interested.)


After a week in New Orleans and a short but extremely satisfying 24-hour stop in Washington DC for moules frites and connecting with close friends, I’m getting ready to board the plane back to Tokyo.

Trips home every now and then are really important to learn a second language fluently. I have spoken almost zero Japanese during my stay with the exception of a quick Japanese lesson last night. (「ズボンには、魚があります。」 “There is a fish in my pants.”) Whenever I get back to Japan after a trip like this, I always feel slightly more aware of the Japanese I use. Lengthy immersion does have its benefits, but it does not afford the chance to step back think about your Japanese critically. If used correctly, the re-immersion process provides a chance to firm up basic grammar points. I’m sure my vocab has probably taken a hit, but hopefully I can use the next few days to solidify my fundamentals.

Regular posting resumes this week.


When you speak Japanese, what are your hands doing? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that when foreigners speak Japanese, many of them seem to have a wicked case of what I’ve termed “charades hands.” We all wave our hands like Stan the used boat salesman from Monkey Island:

I’m tempted to say that ESL folks aren’t plagued by “Stan hands.” For whatever reason, Japanese just draws it out of us. There’s so much more I’m trying to express! Can’t you understand what my hands are trying to say! I’ll freely admit that my hands are as guilty as everyone else’s, but I’ve been trying to be better about it recently.

Do whatever it takes to keep them under control. Put them in your pockets. Sit on them. Hold something really heavy. I have a feeling that maintaining control of your hands will force you to make your word choices more accurate and your grammar more precise.

I think mastery of the passive tense probably cuts down on “charades hands” by about 50%, so go ahead and start there.

Video Game Translation

So you want to translate video games, eh? Well, first I’d strongly suggest that you pursue translation in other fields. Patents pay well. So do contracts. And they’re both easier to translate than video games. Yes, the startup requirements are a little bit higher. Both fields have large amounts of terminology that a translator needs to know in both Japanese and English as well as unique ways of writing. But once you’ve mastered these, you can be a Translation Terminator – line that shit up and knock it the fuck down. The phrases will become more and more familiar, and you’ll be able to do efficient, accurate translation in a field that will always have a huge demand.

Games on the other hand require the c-word – creativity. Games lie in an area between literature and technical writing; there are terms that you need to know and keep consistent, but you also need to be creative and flexible with your English. Perhaps that’s why so many people want to do game translation? People blinded by the sexiness of video game translation (a sexiness that wears off the first time you say, “I translate video games.” *adjusts nerd glasses*) fail to realize that creativity takes time, has a larger supply, and often requires you to read extremely poorly written Japanese and make sense of it.

So you still want to translate video games? Well, I tried my best. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m starting a new category of post today where I’ll try to introduce some lingo from game translation. Hope it’s interesting/helpful. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to read about.


One of the elementary schools I taught at for three years was deep in the mountains. Every Thursday I’d drive the beat-up red town car from the junior high school west along the river and then turn right, head into the mountains. The school only had about 30 kids total from 1st to 6th grade, so I taught sets of two grade years: 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th.

I thought it would be difficult at first, and it was a little when the kids rose a year and got matched with a different set of students, but the older kids always helped the younger ones along. I found that I could get the older kids to provide examples of different patterns and games.

Once I was teaching the 5th and 6th graders vowels. In Japanese the word for vowel is 母音 (ぼいん). [On an interesting side note, the word for consonant is 子音 (しいん)]. 母音 has an unusual pronunciation, so I wrote it on the board for the kids, but for some reason when I said it, the kids started laughing hysterically. I said it again, and they laughed even harder! One kid added, ダニエル先生、すごい! At one point the assistant principal, who was overseeing the class, had to tell kids to stop laughing. I still had no idea what was so funny. I could tell something I said was strange, but I just moved on with the lesson.

A couple weeks later I was teaching the same material to 3rd and 4th graders, and 母音 elicited the same response. This time, however, one of the little boys mimed a giant set of breasts. Ah ha! I thought, ボイン is the noise that boobs make when they move up and down! No wonder they were laughing so much. I had been standing up in front of the class saying, "Okay, guys, there are two types of boobs – long boobs and short boobs, and they make different sounds for each letter."

Laughter is an amazing warning sign. I love it when people laugh at my Japanese. It lets me know that my joke has worked or that I’ve said something incredibly incorrect and strange. Either way, it’s an easy way for people to reinforce better speaking without having to say, “Hey asshole, you messed up.”

If I get laughed at for a mistake, I don’t usually make that mistake again. On the internship I wrote about previously, I once brought omiyage for the group, announcing them by saying このお土産を京都から連れてきました。They all laughed, and the division head let me know that 連れる is only used for people; basically, I had just said, “I have accompanied this omiyage from Kyoto. Please enjoy.” 持ってきた is the correct pattern. Needless to say, I haven’t made that mistake again.

The point? Try not to take it personally if someone laughs at your Japanese, and feel free to laugh at strange English. You’re doing them a favor.

This isn’t really a puzzle, but I will beer the first person to explain the pun from and relevance of the title.

(I also wrote about laughter when I nearly killed a tanuki.)