This is less of a blog post and more of a question I’d like to put out there in regards to the books I’ve read in Japanese thus far.
Kyoto is well-known for its cultural offerings–temples, shrines, the opportunity to dress up like a geisha or maiko for a day, international centers where you can take classes, all of that. What is slowly becoming more popular with tourists here is a little place called Toei Kyoto Studio Park, or Eiga Mura.
After reading a novel geared more toward university students and up, my book club friend and I opted to try for a book more aimed for younger audiences. Having a craving for school-related shenanigans, we picked up this book: てんからどどん by 魚住直子。
Meet Karin, a middle school girl who has a bunch of friends, a family who loves bad jokes, and who loves to speak her mind. In some cases, too much; her friends are on her case about comparing people to things. Why, though? Pigs are cute, right? What’s the big deal?
Meet Riko, a middle school girl who barely speaks in class. It’s true the lack of socializing has done wonders for her grades, but being alone has done a number on her self-esteem. She eats snacks for comfort, and as the school trip approaches, she desperately posts a message on the internet: “Someone please come kill me. I don’t want to endure this trip alone.”
The story follows these two girls as they board an elevator at the same time, and something magical happens that will forever change how they see the world around them.
This is a fun tale; picture Freaky Friday in a middle school setting and that’s what you’ll get. There are some darker subjects touched upon in this book- depression, loneliness, one’s “place” in a family-but there are some lighter, fun parts too. Karin takes the unusual situation they’re in very well, and considers it a great opportunity to change; Riko, not having any other ideas, follows along and is grateful for it.
For the most part, it’s set in their school, where their classmates notice something strange is up with the two girls but don’t know what. The reader gets to see each girl’s life, including interactions with their families. Despite the darker themes, it ends on a happy, hopeful note, albeit an abrupt one. I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a writing style choice in Japanese, as I experienced that in my previous read too.
Geared toward: Junior high schoolers and up. Some kanji, but lots of furigana and casual language.
Level required to read this book: I think you can comfortably read this at N3. I didn’t have to look anything up to understand and enjoy the book, but at N3 or lower you probably will need to.
Good for study: Speaking-wise, sure, it’s got great casual speaking and wordplay. If you’re looking for vocabulary for the JLPT, maybe not.
Length of time to read it: I didn’t keep track, honestly, because I was busy wondering what was going to happen next.
Read it again: Maybe. It’s enjoyable, but I’d prefer to see if the writer has published any other works.
The other day a friend suggested we go up to the rural town of Ohara, a place in Kyoto that is technically still within the city limits but feels like it’s worlds away. Up in the mountains it’s several degrees cooler than in the city, and while tourists do hit up the place, it’s much quieter than some of the better-known spots in the city proper (Kiyomizu Temple comes to mind). Because of these reasons, I agreed, and away we went.
Little did I know that it was flower blooming season in the gardens of Ohara’s main attraction, Sanzenin Temple!
Hydrangea (or “ajisai” in Japanese) are flowers you can spot in several places in Kyoto, but Sanzenin is a lovely place to get as much viewing in as you like. As we went on a weekday there were only one or two other people in the garden, so we were able to bask in the flowers as long as we liked.
Funnily enough, I’ve been to Sanzenin a few times in the past, but always in the autumn. While the fall leaves and spider lilies are also nice up in this part of Kyoto, I’d never even realized the hydrangea were all over the place until this trip.
Mind you this is coming from someone who knows very little about flowers; the only reason I know these are hydrangea is because my friend kept calling them that all day. Still, I’m hopeful this means the knowledge will stick.
Now, why hydrangea and not another flower?
After checking out a few different sources (i.e. bothering my Japanese and fellow expat friends) I learned that hydrangea are a harbinger of summer. The reason for this is they bloom around the rainy season, or 梅雨, which comes right before the oppressive heat of August settles over the country.
Learn something new every day, eh?
We went during the first week of July and, as mentioned, during a weekday, which seemed the ideal time to take it all in without interruptions. For those of you who come during other times of the year, I recommend coming for Sanzenin Temple anyway! It’s a beautiful place with moss-covered gardens, a place to drink tea, and it’s a great chance to get away from the bustle of the city.
Ohara (and Sanzenin) can be reached by bus (No. 17) from Kyoto Station. You can also take the Karasuma Line to Kokusaikaikan Station and hop on bus No. 19 if you’re not a fan of buses (or want to check out multiple means of transportation, I guess). I’ll be digging more into Ohara in general in future posts, so keep an eye out!
I had a student come to me in tears the other day because of a difficult reading we did in class. While the student had been able to answer the target questions and use the target grammar of the day, they were upset because they hadn’t understood the text 100%…. and to them, that felt like a failure.
Something I repeatedly have to drill into students’ head is the concept of “good enough”–if you understand 75% of a given piece of media, you’re doing pretty good in your non-native language. If you understand 100%, what on earth are you doing in my class?
This also applies to vocabulary. So many of my students, afraid of making a mistake, will simply stop mid-sentence to offer me huge, watery eyes in hope that I’ll magically know the exact word they’re searching for. I’ve had to remind students to use the easier word in order to seek help from their peers (or from me) in discovering the elusive vocabulary of choice. Otherwise, they’ll sit there in distress until the topic is changed.
Unfortunately, while my advice helps them relax and communicate more actively, it turns out that it’s one of my greatest weaknesses in language-learning.
I remember when I first learned about the -て (te) form in Japanese 101. “Oh,” I thought, “so you use this to ask people to do something. Blah blah te kudasai. Awesome, got it.” (I didn’t have it; conjugating verbs are a pain.)
A month or two later, I found myself staring at that very same form again, feeling betrayed.
“What do you mean there’s more than one use for this? And I have to remember it?!”
It’s something I’ve always struggled with- going past what I’ve got in order to improve.
I can only hope that my attitude, while detrimental to my own learning, can at least help my students realize it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have perfect grammar.
It’s just nice if you do!
The weather is currently bouncing back and forth between rainy and sunny, but regardless is relentlessly humid. People entering shops do so with the seasonal greeting of, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” Summer has come to Japan, just as sticky as it is every year.
About a thousand years ago, people figured that maybe having some festivals would help take everyone’s minds off of the heat. One such festival, the Gion Matsuri, is still around to this day. (Disclaimer: Gion Matsuri can be linked as far back as the late 800s, but became an actual annual thing starting around 970 CE.)
You can expect to see plenty of neat structures lining the main streets of Kyoto, some of which you might even be able to enter to get a better look at things. These are called Yamaboko floats. The standard word for floats in Japanese is mikoshi （神輿）, but each of the structures you’ll see during the festival in Kyoto have their own names and histories.
Being the biggest festival in Kyoto, lasting the entire month of July, this naturally draws crazy amounts of crowds. So, if you want to make the most of it, what’s a person to do?
First, get your hands on a calendar. The floats are up and running as of now for you to take pictures and read all about, but the actual events are happening on very specific days. The float parade, or the Yamaboko Junko, will happen on two days: the 17th and the 24th. Leading up to the former are a series of days called yoiyama, yoiyoiyama, etc. These are great chances to wander the streets of Kyoto and take in the atmosphere of the festival at large.
Get dressed for the occasion! (Optional.) Some people like to get in the spirit of things, and that includes dressing up in yukata, wooden sandals, the whole bit. Me, I’m not a fan of it, but if that’s your thing go out and find yourself something awesome to wear. Department stores all over Kyoto City are selling entire yukata sets (the yukata itself, obi, geta, yada yada) for your convenience.
Figured out where you’re going and what you want to see? Find some food and drink! It is hot in Kyoto City, and the crowds are only going to make it worse. Even if the heat ruins your appetite, get some food in you and make sure you have water on you at all times while wandering around. I recommend going for cool treats like the chilled cucumbers or shaved ice (kakigori).
Be prepared to wait. When I say it’s crowded, I mean you might move a few meters in ten minutes. People are going to mill and take pictures and hover around the food stands. There will be signs and police officers showing you which way to go, where you can and cannot cross the street, and how to get onto a quieter road if you’re done with the festival.
Listen to instructions. Don’t be that person who ignores all directions and tries to fight against the crowds. You will lose, and you will make yourself out to be a jerk to all and sundry in the meanwhile. Keep an eye and ear out, and if you’re not sure what’s going on ask around for someone who speaks your native language.
Breathe. If the crowds get to be too much for you, step into a nearby department store, convenience store, or cafe depending on what time you’re wandering around. Take a breather in the A/C, get yourself a cold drink, and mentally recharge before you plunge back out into the craziness that is Gion Festival.
Go out, have fun, and stay safe, Gion-goers!
…is, all things considered, very similar to purchasing a book in your native tongue.
All right, so, you’ve gotten enough vocabulary, grammar and determination to try reading in your second language of choice. What’s your first step? How do you survive without coming away with a book that a) you don’t understand or, even worse, b) don’t like?
There are some simple things you can do to help yourself out.
- Look online for recommendations. Before you even go to the bookstore, think of what you enjoy reading and put your favorite search engine to good use. Let’s say that I’m looking for good Light Novels in Japanese. Well, I could search “recommended Light Novels” in English, or maybe, “ライトノベルおすすめ” or maybe “ライトノベル人気”. Have an author you hear is good? Search for their name on your favorite book or shopping website and see what comes up.
- Know what section of the bookstore your novel will be in. I don’t mean look up a map of your bookstore before you go, but make sure you know what the name of the section is. Is it general fiction? A self-help book? An exercise guide? Knowing what category your book falls into will help you (and potentially the staff!) in finding something relevant to your interests.
- Look for a cool cover. Okay I know that sounds silly; insert saying about books, judging by their covers, etc., but I fully admit to being drawn to a cool cover. Let yourself have fun choosing books in whatever way works for you once you’re at the bookstore.
- Can you read the title? Now you’ve got a book in your hand. Can you read and understand it without having to look anything up? This is a pretty good measure for your level versus what you’re challenging yourself with.
- Can you read the first page? This part is a little more flexible. Read the first page. How long does it take you? Can you do it without looking anything up, or can you see a couple words you need to check? At this point, keep in mind that you do not need to understand 100% of what you see on that page. It’s totally fine to notice some things that don’t make sense- that happens in our native languages too, right? What should concern you is if you crack it open and only understand about 50% or less of what you see. If you get around 75% or so of what you’re reading, awesome, you’re at a good level for yourself.
Another possibility is the question “can you read the blurb inside the cover/on the back of the book”, which is a fair enough gauge too, but I find that reading the first page is a great way to see if you like the writing style, as well.
These are just some ways to find what you need in a bookstore; if you have more ideas, please do share them!
Was it the first time you took it, or your tenth? Are you struggling through N5, or did you face down the terror that is N1? Whatever the case, I take off my hat to you and say, お疲れ様でした！Regardless of whether you’re taking it again this December, now is the perfect chance to reflect on your studies, go over questions you think you got wrong, consult with a teacher or a Japanese friend on grammar points…
…If you’re a studying wizard, maybe. While several of you out there indeed go that route, and I applaud you for it, I feel several of us out there are just as keen on going, “Oh thank goodness that’s over!” and avoiding anything to do with Japanese for at least a month, if not more.
Which, admittedly, is not very helpful if you’re looking to improve further.
Still, I get it. You’re sick of studying, and if you look at a practice test one more time you’re going to start wailing, “Not the reading section!” at random in front of startled strangers in public. So what can you do? Is there a happy medium between hitting the books even harder and not touching them at all?
Here’s what I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to do:
I’ve been in Japan long enough to have taken the JLPT multiple times; in December 2015 I came away with (barely!) passing the N2. Upon discovering this, students of English end up asking me what my secret is. How do I study?
The honest answer? ….I don’t. I am terrible at studying. I get into ruts where I won’t touch a textbook for months.
What I do do, however, is play.
I’m a bookworm at heart; in America I’ve got multiple boxes of childhood books I hope I’ll never lose. Since my time in Japan I’ve gotten well over a hundred books on my Kindle and multiple bookshelves worth of books, despite my efforts not to buy too many physical paperbacks. I have memories of spending my days at summer day camp in fifth grade curled up in a corner reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
It’s only natural that, upon coming to Japan, I had a goal in mind language-wise: to become literate in the native language.
As I said, I don’t go to textbooks for practicing reading (unless I have a test or am really stumped about a grammar point). Here are some of the things I have done to practice my reading.
- NHK’s Easy News. For those of you wanting to read current events and practice reading short essays, this is a good bet. All of the kanji have furigana and are easy to look up, the stories are short and simple, and many of the stories have audio you can listen to while you read. They also have an app version of the site for Android gadgets.
- 児童書、 or children’s books. The kids here have to learn how to read all of those crazy kanji too, y’know! Walking into a bookstore or library, the staff should be able to help point you to the right corner. Go for elementary school books if you want to get a feel for your actual level. If you’re N3 or higher, you should be able to tackle a junior high school level book. Many foreign books have been translated into Japanese, from Matilda to Lord of the Rings, so you can start off with something familiar to you before you dive into something entirely new.
- Comic books. If you enjoy reading manga or western comics, this is a great place to start. You get the pictures, of course, to help you with the context of whatever’s going on, and just like with regular books there’s a crazy amount of options out there depending on your interests/reading levels. I was working on the new Sailor Moon when I was around N4 level, but I feel like as long as you have a grasp on hiragana and katakana you should be able to settle in and work your way through. Please do note that for more “adult” comics they won’t use furigana as much, though, so check your comic before you buy/borrow! Again, starting with a series you’re already familiar with can help a lot.
If you’re actively studying Japanese in school, ask your teacher(s) if they have more resources to check out. I recall struggling through the Hiragana Times when I was in university and it helping me, as well.
Best of luck in reading!