Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Cake: The Results!

So, Christmas has come and gone. Whatever happened to that cake I promised to make? How did all of my hopes and dreams of becoming a master sponge-cake chef resolve? The drama? The intrigue? The whipped cream and strawberries?!

Find out about all this and more after the jump! Well, maybe not all that stuff about drama and intrigue...

(Note to RSS readers: You may or may not have to visit the blog to see the rest of the article.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merry Christmas!

You can probably guess, even if just by looking at the picture to the right, that Christmas is a little different in Japan than we know it here.

The broad strokes are still there - families and friends sometimes exchange gifts, and houses are decorated with Christmas lights.

But the types of gifts, when there are any, tend to be "cute" (or, as the Japanese would say, かわいい; kawaii), typically being things like teddy bears or scarves — things that we Westerners might give on Valentine's Day. Inexpensive gifts are also given around this time of year, more due to the upcoming new year than to Christmas, to less intimate friends. Here's an interesting excerpt on that subject:
More obligatory year-end presents are given during this season as well to people who have done you a favor during the year, however, in contrast to Christmas presents, they are given between companies, to bosses, to teachers, and family friends. These presents are known as 'Oseibo' and are generally things which are perishable or which wear out quickly for which the price can readily be checked because of the system of 'on' and 'giri' (loosely translated obligation and reciprocity). These presents are usually purchased at department stores so that the recipient can check the price and return something which relates to the scale of reciprocity.
Billy Hammond

More significant than the difference in gifts are the differences in actual tradition. The Japanese often celebrate Christmas with two signature foods. The first is a Christmas cake, a sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries (click the picture for a recipe). By the way, I plan to make one of these myself for Christmas - I'll post the results, wish me luck!

The second, bizarrely, is Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC managed to hijack Christmas with a very successful ad campaign some decades ago, and now takes reservations for "Christmas Chicken" as early as October. Many Japanese believe that this is how Westerners celebrate the holiday as well.

Hmmm... this post is getting a bit too long for me to talk about New Year's in Japan, like I originally planned. I'll leave that to my next entry, and I'll close this one up with a Christmas song straight out of Japan. If you want to read more about Christmas in Japan, check out the links below the video.

Christmas in Japan:

PS: My savings have passed 25%!

First image retrieved from Unusual Life.
Second image retrieved from Japan Guide.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Torii, Rainbow Bridge, and some J-Pop

The archway in the picture, and others like it, are a sort of symbol of Japan to us foreigners. So elegant, and yet so simple, torii (literally meaning "bird perch") are usually found in or around shrines and temples.

I'll readily admit that I had no idea what these things were until a few hours ago, even though one is prominently displayed in this page's background. But, thanks to the power of Google, I was able to learn that they "symbolically [mark] the transition from the profane to the sacred" (Wikipedia). Aside from doing that, they make good postcard material.

rainbow bridge
Moving quickly onward, I have decided on one thing in Tokyo that I absolutely must see: the Rainbow Bridge.

During the day, it's a rather drab, white-ish bridge. After sunset, though, it becomes the stunning work of art that you see in the picture. It would be sin for me to be in Tokyo and not see this in person!

So, I'll squeeze that into the itinerary box on the right side of the page. Also, now is a good time to mention that I added another $50 to my travel fund, bringing me to 19%. It's not much, but every penny counts!

Now, let's bring this entry to a close with the song below, called 負けないで (makenaide, "don't give up"), by Izumi Sakai.

First image retrieved from Sydney Morning Herald.
Second image retrieved from Flickriver.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Oyakodon and days of the week

Oyakodon (親子丼) is a simple dish, consisting of chicken, eggs, green onions, rice, and such like. The reason why I mention it isn't that it has some amazing flavor that we westerners shouldn't live without, but rather because of its name.

The first character in the word oyakodon is oya (親), meaning "parent". The second is ko (子), meaning "child". The last is don (丼), meaning something like "bowl". So,  oyakodon is the "parent and child bowl", because we eat the parent (the chicken) and the child (the egg) in the same bowl. Horrible, right?

japanese desktop
Anyway, moving on, I now use my laptop and iPod entirely in Japanese. No, I really can't make sense out of most of the text, but I am slowly learning useful new words, such as 時計 for "clock" and 天気 for "weather", through forced immersion. The most immediately useful thing that I have learned this way, though, is the days of the week:

  • 日曜日 (nichiyoubi) - sun day 
  • 月曜日 (getsuyoubi) - moon day
  • 火曜日 (kayoubi) - Mars day or fire day
  • 水曜日 (suiyoubi) - Mercury day or water day
  • 木曜日 (mokuyoubi) - Jupiter day or wood day
  • 金曜日 (kin'youbi) - Venus day or metal day
  • 土曜日 (doyoubi) - Saturn day or earth day 
It's worth noting that their weekday names are very similar to ours. Our first day is "Sunday", which is followed by "Monday", and our last day is "Saturday". This is no mistake — it would seem that the practice of naming days of the week after the visible planets was borrowed by China and Rome from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then eventually was delivered in whole to Japan and in part to us. For comparison, here are the Latin day names:

Dies solis - "Sun day"
Dies lunae - "Moon day"
Dies martis - "Mars day"
Dies mercurii - "Mercury day"
Dies iovis - "Jupiter day"
DIes veneris - "Venus day"
Dies saturni - "Saturn day"

Well, I'd better stop here. I am about to fall asleep on the keyboard! I really need to do this earlier in the day.

First image retrieved from
Second image is my own

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Recent news (最近のニュース)

Note: This image of my favorite punctuation mark is irrelevant. However, I thought that I'd take this opportunity to say that every picture in every article here is set to display a description or some other sort of message when highlighted by the cursor. Now, moving on...

I'm sorry for having gone so long without posting — I'm trying not to give my first readers too much to catch up on.

First off, let me say that I updated my funds again. I managed to add another $200 this week, bringing me to $600. However, I think that this is the last consecutive week that I'll be able to add so much. I'll have to slow down considerably in order to have enough left to live on before the trip!

A week ago or so, I subscribed to all news articles with the keywords "free tickets Japan" through Google News. Since then, I've received two relevant email updates. Let's see what we have:

PR Newswire: American Airlines and Japan National Tourism Organization Offer Tips for Making the Most of Travel to Japan

Traveller: Room at the inns 

ryokan room
The first includes good tips for a Japanese vacation, but it seems to be targeted more at people coming this winter whereas I intend to visit in the spring or fall. The second shows the devastating effects of March's disaster on Japanese businesses, especially the traditional ryokan inns.

These, together, show just how badly Japan not only wants, but needs tourists. They need to dispel the fear that outsiders have of earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation. This is why they are planning to pay for the flights of ten thousand visitors — they need people like us to tell the world that Japan is a great place to visit.

First image retrieved from The Realm of Ryan. I wouldn't want to steal credit for his hard work!

Second image retrieved from My Rooms Japan.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

First stop: Tokyo!

After some deliberation, I have decided that want to take the bull by the horns and start my vacation in Tokyo!

For some time, I had considered that it may be better to save my stay in Tokyo for the end of the vacation — sort of "saving the best for last", if you will. Today, though, I have decided that I want my vacation to start with a bang. After coming out of my culture-shock induced coma, I should be thoroughly converted to Japan-mode, and I think that I will actually better appreciate the rest of my trip after partaking of the vital essence of the capital.

While I'm there, I plan to rendezvous with my friend Suzuki-san and see if I can't coax him into showing me some of the city. This might well be the highlight of my trip!

That's all that I know. I haven't decided how long I will be staying in Tokyo, where I will go next, or whether I will return before flying home. Once I have put together a comprehensive plan for my time in the capital, I'll try to make these decisions. Suggestions are more than welcome!

Now, before I end this entry, time for a status update. I have added $200 to my travel fund, bringing me up to 12% at $400. I have also decided to wait until spring before exchanging my dollars for yen, since I might get better rates then.

That's it for now. またね!

Image retrieved from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Sushi: vinegared, short-grained, sticky white rice served with fish, vegetables, or other ingredients.
— Wiktionary
I included the definition of the word "sushi" above because of the common misconception that it means "raw fish". No, it doesn't, and raw fish (called sashimi in Japanese) is not a necessary ingredient of sushi. However, let's be honest: all of the best and most popular varieties of sushi do have raw fish.

Rather than write a needless article about what sushi is and what kinds there are (that's already been done by countless others before me), I will write a needless article about my experience with sushi. It's my blog, right?

When I first tried sushi a few years back, I approached it with a skeptical mind. The sushi was served, and I, fork in hand (as I had yet to master the art of eating with chopsticks), tried my first roll.

I was not impressed.

You see, we (meaning myself and some of my family) ordered two rolls that I remember. One was called the Rainbow Roll, which my dad had tried and enjoyed before. The other, which I never intend to eat again, was the Philadelphia Roll. All that is important to know about these two is that the first has a lotta fish and the second has a lotta cream cheese.

I tried the Philadelphia Roll first. I nearly gagged — I didn't know about the cream cheese, which I can't stand in the gratuitous amounts present in my sushi. I moved from that to the Rainbow Roll, which looked quite intimidating with slabs of raw fish piled on top. It tasted alright, but I couldn't help but think "rawfishrawfishrawfish" as I ate it.

As such, my first experience was not great. But, something strange happened. After a few days, I began to crave that peculiar flavor of sushi. I couldn't explain it; I didn't enjoy myself the first time, but for some reason my body was telling me to get more.

So, I eventually went back again with my dad and my brother. This time, as I bit into a tuna roll, I found that I actually liked it. I can't explain it.

So, to make a long story short (as the hour grows late and my bed beckons), I am sold on sushi now. I highly recommend that you give it a chance yourself if you haven't already. But, a word of warning: don't try that horrid, vomit-inducing stuff that you see at your local Chinese buffet. Go to a Japanese restaurant and order something fresh.

Now, photo credits, then bed:

First and second images retrieved from Wikipedia.
Third image by Epstein Design.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Trick-or-treating, when you think about it, is a rather elaborate custom. It somehow became mutually understood that anyone with their porch lights on during the evening of October 31st should have candy on hand to give to droves of children wearing all manner of disguises.

While Halloween is gaining popularity in Japan, trick-or-treating isn't terribly common yet. Although this post from Japan-Guide is rather old (it's from 2004), I found it interesting:

"I think the U.S. is about the only country that is so big in Trick or Treating, if that's what you're asking. 
But the existance of this custom is now quite well-known in Japan, except that as mentioned, not many people actually do it.
Halloween in Japan has more young adults enjoying costume parties than kids knocking on doors. Rarely, some expat districts have Trick or Treating events though, and in recent years, the orange color pumkins have become more available at a lot of markets.
Since I moved out of our apartment building and in to our house last year, I've been putting Jack-o-Lanterns outside our door with a notice saying that people are welcome to come for candy on the evening of Oct. 31.
Last year, the girl accross the street brought a bunch of 10 year olds. They all were in their normal clothes, but one of them said, "Hey, I might wear a costume next year." This year so far, I had a Cinderella, two Scary Movie boys, and the girl accross the street acompanied by her big brother. No one has yet yelled "Trick or Treat" though.

Right now it's 5:30pm on the 31st here in Japan. Let's see how many more I'll get. Oh, I just had a pumpkin mask and an animal ring my door!"
by Uco 

I think that post leaves little for me to say about Halloween in Japan, except to repeat that it is certainly becoming more popular year-by-year. So, with that out of the way, let's look at something somewhat related to the topic at hand: Japanese candy.

From green tea Kit-Kat bars to lemon-milk flavored sticks, Japan definitely has a unique (but not altogether bad) taste when it comes to confectioneries. But, rather than ramble on and pretend to be an expert on the subject (read: because I don't know what I'm talking about, and I wish I were in bed right now), how about I just show you. To see more, visit KidCrave, which is where I got these images:

First image retrieved from AsianOffbeat.
All subsequent images retrieved from KidCrave.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Of mice and yen

Despite the title, this entry has nothing to do with mice. I just needed some kind of cultural reference in the title - so I'm not going to bother telling you that the Japanese word for "mouse" is 鼠 (nezumi), or that the Japanese onomatopoeia for a mouse's squeak is ちゅー (chuu). No, that would be all be quite beside the point and not worth mentioning.

Indeed, the actual topic here is the dollar-to-yen exchange rate. All of my plans are loosely based on the current exchange rate, but I didn't consider the possibility that the rate might change.

dollar-yen rate

Right now, we are faced with a weak dollar and strong yen. This means that when I exchange my dollars for yen, I won't be getting as much as I would at a better exchange rate. What's more, the rate is getting worse and worse.

So, I'm faced with a predicament — the money that I am saving will probably be worth less next year than it is now. My options are to either order my currency early (as I earn it), to raise my saving goal as time goes on, hope that the rates improve, or some combination of the above.

In any case, a fee would be levied if I exchanged anything less than $1000. Because of this, I will wait until I have put that much into my travel fund, and then decide on the next step.

If you're planning a trip to Japan, or to any foreign country for that matter, be sure to keep an eye on the currency exchange rates!

First image created through several painstaking hours in GIMP... okay, it was only fifteen seconds. The Pikachu element was retrieved from Creative Uncut, and the yen element was retrieved from And Still I Persist.

The second image was retrieved from Google, and was automatically generated in the search results for "dollar to yen exchange rate".

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Japan and I

No, I'm not going to tell you about a sad, doomed romance between myself and an oriental island country. Rather, cool as that would be, I am going to talk about the Japanese words for "Japan" and "I".

The Japanese call their country 日本 (Nihon/Nippon). The first kanji,  , means "sun", and the second, , means "origin". So, put together, they mean sun-origin. This name comes from the fact that, from the perspective of China, the sun seems to rise up from Japan.

There are two ways to pronounce the name. Nihon is usually used to refer to the island, whereas Nippon is usually used to refer to the state. However, there don't seem to be very many set-in-stone rules in deciding which one to use.

Incidentally, the English word "Japan" comes from the way that the Chinese pronounced 日本 around the fourteenth century I'm really not sure of the exact time frame.

And now, let's talk about me. Not "me" the writer, but "me" the word, which is the same in Japanese as "I".

japanese 'self' gesture
In English, a complete sentence must always include a subject. We say "I spent the whole day fighting off aliens with a dead herring" and "she cleaned the angry rhinoceros's snout with a rabid sea sponge". Why, we're even so subject-happy that we include a subject when there is really no subject at all, as in "it rained" and "it snowed".

In Japanese, however, there is no such rule. You can easily get away with just saying "walked" for "I/you/he/she/it/we/they walked". You can, and should. The Japanese don't like to use pronouns except when they are absolutely necessary, in order to prevent confusion.

watashi in kanji
But, if you do want to say that it was you yourself who did something, then you will need to say one of the words for "I". Yes, I said one of the words — there are actually several to choose from. What's more, some of them are only used by men, and some only by women.

Depending on the situation, a man could choose between (watashi/watakushi), (boku), (ore) and a number of others. Women have also have (watashi/watakushi), as well as あたくし (atakushi), あたし (atashi), and so on. I would write a complete list, but I simply don't have a complete list.

I personally have opted for (boku) — it's not too formal, not too casual, and it doesn't have the feminine feel that (watashi) has in informal speech.

Well, there's enough rambling for now. You can see on the progress bar that I have added $200 to my travel fund - I hope to do this weekly, but we'll see. Now, let's flip out like ninjas!

Thanks to Alex from for including the above song in his podcast.

First image retrieved from PlanetWare.
Second image retrieved from

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Japan Rail Pass

From the little bit of research that I have done so far, getting a Japan Rail Pass (official site/Wikipedia) should be very high on my priority list before going to Japan.

For ¥45,100 ($592), I can ride participating Japanese railways as much as I like for fourteen days. Considering that I plan to jump all over the country, and that my only means of getting about will be trains and my two feet, this could well be a good deal.

However, I have not yet planned my itinerary, and am not absolutely sure yet that it will save me money. For now, to be safe, I will assume that I am going to buy a rail pass, and save accordingly. But, once all is planned, I will check the prices of each ride individually, and count up the cost of simply paying in cash in comparison with the rail pass.

This isn't something that can really be decided at the last moment, though. Once I am on Japanese soil, the option of obtaining a pass will be gone — they can only be purchased by gaijin (foreigners) like myself, and only outside of Japan.

At any rate, if you are planning a trip to Japan, be sure not to overlook the rail pass!

Image retrieved from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Japanese at a Glance

Fortunately, I don't have to start completely from scratch to learn Japanese. I had studied it a little in years past, and have picked it up again not long ago.

On the other hand, though, I still have a long uphill climb ahead of me. While I may have memorized the mess of symbols (called kana) that you see to the right, I still have to learn kanji, which are not only much more complicated, but also much more numerous. It is recommended to learn at least 1,945 kanji in particular, but there are far more than these alone!

And, of course, learning the symbols does not constitute learning Japanese. While I might have a basic understanding of some of the simplest concepts in the language, there is still a lot left to learn. Even if I drill every vocabulary item into my head, speaking Japanese isn't as simple as thinking an English thought and replacing each word with its Japanese equivalent. I don't think it would be expedient to explain this sentiment in detail just yet, but it is actually best to avoid English thought altogether when learning a foreign language.

The grammar is naturally much different from English. A few of the most conspicuous differences are that most words don't have a plural form, and that "am", "is", and "are" are all translated as the same word. Add to this, there is no real future tense (or, as Tae Kim would have it, there is no real present tense), but rather a non-past tense that covers both the present and the future.

Well, I think that has been enough ado over nothing. Let's close up this entry with a great J-Pop song which was shown me by Gon-san at Lang-8. Following is どんなときも (donna toki mo) by Noriyuki Makihara. Now, I have studying to do (ーー;)

First image retrieved from Musings of a Creative Slacker.
Second image retrieved from Joe Park's JLPT Page.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Welcome! (ようこそ!)

Hello and welcome to my ramblings!

In this blog, I intend to record my efforts, from start to finish, to visit Japan. Right now, I am at the very beginning of my toils - the tasks ahead of me are to learn the Japanese language well enough to survive in Japan on my own, to plan every stop that I will take, and to put back the money to make this wish a reality.

The first task (learning Japanese), while monumental, is feasible. From studying Latin, I have learned just how different a language can be from English, and I have prepared my mind to learn foreign tongues.

My main tools for learning Japanese, at this point, are Tae Kim's Guide to learning Japanese, Lang-8 and Rikaichan. Other valuable tools that I use are the Learn Japanese Podcast, Anki, JWPce and Kotoba. Finally, I have learned not to underestimate the importance of pen and paper - the best way to memorize vocabulary is to write and vocalize each item as many times as is necessary to remember it.

The second task (planning the trip) will not be hastily completed. I have to admit that I know very little about Japan, and that I will have to spend a lot of time learning about what there is to do and see, and then trimming down the list to fit in my two-week schedule. If you have any recommendations, I would love to hear them!

The third task (saving up) shouldn't be much of an ordeal. I'm not exactly rolling in money, but I do have plenty of time to save up for this trip - I am planning to either go in April or November, which I am told are the best months to stay in Japan.

My goal is to put back enough money in a week to survive comfortably for a day. After fourteen weeks, I should be well-off for my trip's duration. For good measure, I will continue to put back money even after that time.

But, what about the flight fare? That's where this blog comes in. The Japan Tourism Agency is currently considering giving 10,000 free flight tickets to international travelers.* Although the funding has not yet been approved, it is possible that, this coming April, the Japanese government will take applications from what they call "influential blogger-types" in order to choose the recipients.

While I am hardly an "influential blogger-type", and while I am in fact jeopardizing my own chances by telling you readers about this great opportunity, this is a chance that I can't afford to miss.

golden ticket
So, to be clear, this blog will be run from this point onward with the ultimate hope of receiving a free flight ticket and taking the vacation that I have dreamed about for a very long time. I know that I may never see this "golden ticket", but hope will drive me forward.

So, until that moment of truth when Japan either approves my application, turns me down or even shoots down the whole program, I will keep track of all of my progress on all three tasks. I'll post grammar notes as I learn the language, cultural notes as I learn about the country itself, and personal notes as I simply live life. You can also expect the occasional off-topic article about games, movies, Latin, or whatever else I have a mind to write about.

Now that that's out of the way, it's time to get started. The train is rolling, let's go!

*Don't believe me? Here are all kinds of sources.

ABC News: 10,000 free round trip tickets to Japan
Fox News: Japan to give 10,000 tickets to international tourists
MSNBC: Japan may give away 10,000 flights
Yahoo News: Japan lures visitors with 10,000 free flights
The Guardian: Would you take a free flight to Japan?

... and countless more.