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.