Namagashi: Delicious Japanese Sweets

Namagashi are a type of Japanese jelly-like sweets that are made into colourful shapes to evoke the changing seasons.

Reminiscences of Summer in Japan: Gion Matsuri

One of Japan's most famous festivals is held each year in July in the Gion district of Kyoto.

Japanese Garden at Horsforth Hall Park

Horsforth hall Park in Leeds is home to a small but interesting Japanese garden.

The Royal Armouries

The Oriental Gallery at the Royal Armouries in Leeds is host to a wealth of fascinating Japanese exhibits.

The Kyoto Garden at Holland Park

London's Holland Park hides a beautifully calm and lush Japanese garden in its midst.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review: Japan's World Heritage Sites by John Dougill

An enjoyable and informative book about Japan's many heritage sites

by John Dougill
Tuttle Publishing
ISBN 4805312858
Price: £29

Recently I was contacted by author John Dougill offering me a copy of his book Japan's World Heritage Sites to review here on the Itsumo Japan blog. Of course I jumped at the chance, I love the opportunity to discover new books about Japan and share them with my readers.

Japan's World Heritage Sites by John Dougill is a lovely hardback book filled with gorgeous glossy photographs and detailed information about Japan's many UNESCO heritage sites. Japan has 17 sites in all and, in 2012, Dougill set out to visit each one travelling from the north of Hokkaido to Okinawa in the south collecting the information and experiences shared in this book.

Each of Japan's world heritage sites is covered within the book with details about its history, features, location and reasons for selection along with useful maps and access information. Dougill's informative writing is accompanied by a wealth of colour photographs, some of which were taken by the author on his cross-country trip.

I really enjoyed reading Japan's World Heritage Sites. It is filled with lots of interesting information about all of Japan's UNESCO registered sites from the famous Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion and Nikko's Toshogu shrine complex to lesser known sites such as the ancient Ryuku ruins of Okinawa and the secluded meditational retreat of Kozan-ji. And, of course, the newest addition to Japan's list, Mt Fuji, is here too. I also learnt from Dougill's book that Japan is home to many natural heritage sites like the subtropical Ogasawara Islands and Hokkaido's Shiretoko Penninsula. The book finishes with a list of further sites being prepared by Japan for future nomination.

If you're interested in traditional Japan and exploring its many heritage sites then this book would make a great addition to your library as well as being an interesting and inspirational pre-trip read. So why not get a copy of this lovely book and see how many of Japan's heritage sites you can visit?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Endings and New Beginnings

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet around here for a while. That's because I've rediscovered an old love ... drawing, and art in general. I was really inspired by my last trip to Japan and ever since I got back my passion for art, specifically illustration, was reawakened. So I'm taking a break from writing and this blog to spend lots of time surrounded by pencils, paper & paintbrushes. Sadly this does mean that I don't have much time to update Itsumo Japan but I hope that it will remain a useful resource, and who knows, I might manage to squeeze in the odd post every now and again.

An of course I still love Japan, it has already been a big influence on my work and I have lots of Japan-related projects planned. So if you want to have a look at what I've been up to and follow my future endeavours then please click on the images below to have a look at my new website and Facebook page.

I also want to take this opportunity to say thank you so much for all the wonderful support I've received for this site, it's been really encouraging to read your comments and see traffic to this site increase so ... どもありがとうございました!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

My Trip to Japan Day 1: Arriving in Japan

Settling in to our apartment and our first evening in Yokohama

Well I've now been back in the UK for 2 weeks and, though I still experience daily pangs of regret that I'm not in Japan anymore, the worst of my post-trip blues has passed and I think I'm ready to go through my notes and photos from the trip and tell you all about it. Maybe.

I've tried to include as many useful links and as much useful information as I can about the places that I visited.

After a very early start here in Leeds, 1 bus ride, 3 train journeys and a 12hr flight we were finally in Japan. Though the journey was long it was easy and thankfully stress-free. As ever, I couldn't sleep at all on the flight (I never seem to be able to sleep while I'm travelling) but as we began our descent to Narita Airport and the fields and rooftops of Japan drew closer those long sleepless hours were forgotten and my excitement levels, which had been simmering at around 8 or 9 since we left the house, rocketed up past 10. The voice in my head was screaming, 'It's Japan! You're in Japan!'

In the airport the familiar bilingual signs and the singsong voice of the escalators made it seem even more of a reality and I fought back a few tears of joy as we made our way to immigration. The 'Welcome to Japan' sign which also says 'おかえりなさい' (welcome home) made my smile even wider and before we were even out of the airport I was practicing my Japanese by chatting to the friendly customs officer.

We took the N'EX - Narita Express from Narita Airport straight to Yokohama station. It cost ¥4180 each (one way) and took approximately 1hr 30mins.

The apartment that we were staying in is in the Daimachi area of Yokohama and, thanks to the wonders of Google Maps and Streetview, we found it easily and even lugging heavy bags with us it only took 5mins to walk from the station.

View Yokohama 2013 in a larger map

Inside the apartment was lovely. Though we were early the apartment caretaker Mori-san, who was still cleaning and preparing everything for us, kindly let us in to wait until she finished. After the last sticky part of our journey through the hot and humid streets of Yokohama we were very grateful to put down our bags and enjoy the air-conditioning.  After a quick cheery tour of the apartment and explaining how to use the various appliances she left us in a flurry of bows and 'arigatou's to unpack and settle in.

The bedroom had tatami mats, really soft comfy futons, lots of storage space and sliding doors that opened onto a long balcony.

Though the bathroom had a really excellent shower with lots of jets and different shower heads it also had a big deep bath and a tap for more traditional Japanese-style bathing.

Since the apartment was on the 10th floor we had a good view from the balcony of the surrounding area. Here you can see dark clouds rolling in before an evening rainstorm.

The whole apartment had a nice quirky lived-in feel that made us feel right at home and was pretty spacious by Japanese standards. The kitchen was well-stocked with all the crockery, glasses and cooking utensils you could need, there was a whole bookcase full of books in various languages and lots of the owner's nicknacks and personal touches around the apartment. We booked it through Airbnb and it cost us around £70 per night. If you're looking for somewhere to stay in Yokohama I would really recommend it, you can find the listing here.

The Daimachi area was a great place to stay since it has the advantages of being a quiet residential neighbourhood while being only 5mins walk from the Yokohama station area which is home to lots of depāto, restaurants and shops. We were spoiled for choice with konbini too as there were branches of Lawson, Sunkus and 7Eleven just down the road.

There were, however, a lot of steps leading the street where we stayed which often required all the energy we had left to climb them after a long day of walking and sightseeing. 

After a much needed shower, after which I still didn't quite feel I was rid of all the sweat and grime of almost 24hrs of travelling, we popped out to the nearby Lawson to buy lunch and stock up the fridge with water and mugicha after which we succumbed to tiredness and fell asleep on the sofa to the sound of Japanese daytime TV.

When we woke up the sky was dark and a rainstorm was cooling down the evening air. Armed with umbrellas that we found in the apartment we set out for a little walk in the direction of the Minato Mirai area.

There aren't many things more Japanese than sheltering from the rain under a little clear plastic umbrella.

We walked through the Minami-Saiwai area which reminded me a little of Dotonbori in Osaka. The streets were pretty lively even in the rain with lots of young couples and friends out on the town, noisy pachinko parlours, games centres, bars, fast food places and a branch of the famous Tokyo store Don Quijote.

View Yokohama 2013 in a larger map

After getting a little lost and seeing some stunning night views of Yokohama the rain stopped and we made it to the Minato Mirai area.

We didn't have time to explore the whole area but we saw the hulking Landmark Tower and the iconic ferris wheel clock at Cosmo World

View Yokohama 2013 in a larger map

On the way back to our apartment, in search of dinner and starting to feel the pull of sleep again we passed a small park. Nestled in between the busy main roads and tower blocks it was completely deserted except for hundreds of insects all singing a beautiful night chorus. It was much softer than the harsh call of cicadas that you hear during the day and made me realise why the sounds of different insects has been enjoyed in Japan since ancient times. It was like a little oasis of nature in the busy city. 

After another quick but tasty konbini meal of gyōza, shumai, rice and salad all washed down with lemon Chūhai I fell quickly to sleep on my futon content, with a full tummy and the voice in my head whispering 'You're here, you're really in Japan'.

My Trip to Japan Day 2: Exploring Yokohama, a Trip to the Supermarket and Sukiyaki for Dinner coming soon ...

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Interview: Ryoko Minamitani

Conceptual Japanese artist living in Leeds

Ryoko Minamitani, a Japanese artist living in Leeds, is currently exhibiting her work at the Bowery in Headingley. Her installation, 'Being Present', is made up of bright and beautiful images of blue skies that cascade down the walls and reach out across the gallery's bare wood floor. Nestled in amongst the wave of blue sky are little boxes each with more images secreted inside. I met up with Ryoko recently to talk to her about her work and the ideas behind it.

After studying more conventional art practice in Nagoya and Tokyo Ryoko Minamitani studied 'photo therapy' under its inventor Masumi Ishihara, a photographer interested in the combination of psychology and photography and the effect of abstract photography on the viewer. Since 2008 she has also practiced painting meditation under Tatsuhiko Yokō, an 84 year old professional painter, Christian and Zen master living in Berlin who teaches meditation to empty the mind before beginning to create art.

Ryoko moved to the UK, Bristol to be exact, in 2008 with the desire to improve her English and introduce her art to an international audience. Having already exhibited her work several times in Tokyo she went on to exhibit more work in Bristol. 'Being Present' is her first exhibition in Leeds and her first installation having previously focused on painting, photography and conceptual work.

Through 'Being Present' Ryoko aims to show people that since the past exists only in memory and the future is made up of desires and worries only the present exists. The boxes within the exhibition represent these three states and her wish is that people live in the present.

The images that make up 'Being Present' were taken in various locations in both the UK and Japan using both conventional and pinhole cameras. Ryoko explained that the places have no significance, she takes photos intuitively, with whatever camera is available and whenever she experiences a 'high state of mind'. She explained that she chose images of the sky since the Japanese kanji for sky - 空 can also mean emptiness.

As a practitioner of Johrei, a form of alternative healing and mediation originating in Japan with roots in both Shintoism and Buddhism, Ryoko's work is clearly inspired by spiritual practice but she is keen that her work not be considered religious art. Though she used religious meditation to find the images and concepts included in 'Being Present' she believes that they are relevant to everyone, whatever their background. Ryoko believes that art reflects the artist's inner soul and 'if we do not have a healthy and true inner soul, we cannot create true art'.

'Being Present' is on show until 6th September at the Bowery in Leeds. Admission is free.

All images: Itsumo Japan ©

Thursday, 13 June 2013

1 Month To Go: What I'm Packing For My Trip To Japan

Well, believe it or not, another month has gone by and I'm now only 1 month away from my much anticipated, hopefully not over-hyped, trip to Japan!

So since the trip is getting close I though I'd share with you some insight into what I'm packing for my trip in the hope that it might be useful to anyone else planning a trip to Japan especially in the summer.

A little note on summer in Japan ...
Whenever I told each of my Japanese friends that I was planning a trip to Japan in July they looked a little worried and asked me if I knew how hot it is in Japan in the summer. I quickly assured them that I did and told them about a previous summer trip to Japan to stop their worry. Truthfully though, they're right, it is really hot in Japan in the summer. And very humid. I once read that if you wash your hair or do laundry in during the summer it never really dries without the aid of a dryer because the air is so humid! (I've also heard stories of monster mould that grows in bathrooms and dark corners because of the rise in air moisture.) Most guide books warn that high temperatures can make travel unbearable during the summer but the summer season has a lot to offer, lots of matsuri, cheaper air fares, yukata, hanabi and delicious summer food. You also get a sense of camaraderie from the people that you meet on the street, in shops or on the subway as they smile and ask 'Atsui desu ne?' If you can stand the heat and humidity it is truly a fun and interesting time to visit.

So here is a little run down of what I'm packing for my trip to Japan next month...
If you have any comments or suggestions then please add them in the comments below, I'd love to hear them ^_^

1. Clothes
Of course, I'm packing clothes for my trip to Japan. The reasons are that I don't want to wear one outfit for two weeks. Equally I don't want to walk around the Tokyo/Yokohama area naked. However, because it is going to be pretty hot over there (the average temperature for Tokyo in July is a sticky 29°C/84°F and even the average night time temperature of 23°C/73°F is warmer than most summer days here in the UK) I'm choosing what I do take pretty carefully. That means lots of light, floaty summer dresses, cool blouses and t-shirts, skirts, shorts and thin trousers and a shawl to cover up my fair, sunburn-prone skin outside and keep me warm in chilly air-conditioned restaurants and shopping malls.

2. Hankies & Fans
Anyone that has been to Japan in the summer will know that fans, both the flat uchiwa variety often given out as advertising flyers and the fold-up sensu kind, are a very popular and useful accessory to carry. The two in the picture above were gifts from Japan and I'm looking forward to taking them back there and putting them to good use keeping me cool.
Handkerchiefs are also very useful during the hot and humid days of Japanese summers but they are used a little differently than they are here in the West. Rather than being used to wipe a runny nose Japanese people use hankies, or sometimes a small towel (like a face cloth) to dab the sweat from their face and neck. Last time I visited Japan in the summer there were many occasions where I wished I was carrying a handy handkerchief too so I'm popping these two cute bear print ones in my suitcase.

3. Shoes
Again this is quite obvious, of course I'm taking shoes with me but because I like to walk a lot when I'm on holiday (I think it's the best way to see a city, I've happened across so many interesting little sights and places just by wandering around and getting a little lost) I'm making sure that all the shoes that I do take are super comfy. Also, another thing to bear in mind when packing shoes for a trip to Japan is that in several places you may be required to take your shoes off, for example at traditional inns and restaurants, in people's homes and at some tourist spots. In these situations a pair of slip-on shoes that don't require lacing or fastening is very useful.

4. A Practical Bag
Although this bag (a much-loved birthday present from Mr Itsumo Japan) is undoubtedly very pretty it is also very handy for carrying around all those holiday essentials such as guide books, a phrasebook, my purse, my compact camera and maybe a couple of snacks ; )

5. Toiletries
Aside from the usual everyday toiletries like shampoo and shower gel I will also be making sure that I pack a good sun cream (I really recommend Once by Boots Soltan. You only need to apply it once in the morning, unless you go swimming or have a shower, and it protects you all day. I used it on a recent trip to Barcelona and didn't burn once in the hot Spanish sun, something of a miracle for my fair skin!). I also like to take Aloe Vera gel with me on holiday as it is excellent as a cooling after-sun lotion, especially if you keep it in the fridge.

6. Guide Books & Phrase Books
I always take at least one guide book away with me and on this trip I'm taking Time Out Tokyo and Lonely Planet Tokyo. Although the Time Out guide has been criticised for its lack of Japanese translations I already feel that it's far exceeding the Lonely Planet guide in the number of cool and interesting places that it includes, of course I won't truly be able to judge this until I use it in Japan. I'll keep you posted on that. In addition to these two guide books I'm also taking a bilingual Tokyo City Atlas and a folder packed full of print-outs and information about the sights and places that I've found online.
Unless you're fluent in Japanese, which I'm definitely not, you'll also need to pack a phrasebook. I'm taking the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook for the second time as well as a stack of flashcards that I've prepared with useful words and phrases that have popped up during my studies, I talked more about this in my 3 Months To Go: Preparing to Use My Japanese Skill in Japan post.

7. Notebook, Pens & Pencils
I don't want to miss or forget anything from my trip and I'm hoping that it's going to provide me with lots of new material to write about so I'll be taking a notebook, pen and pencils so that I can jot down all my thoughts and experiences, doodle, draw and generally fill the pages with as much 'japaneseness' as possible. I always take scissors and Pritt Stick with me too for a bit of on the go scrapbooking! The notebooks that I've filled on previous trips have always yielded something useful and interesting and serve as a wonderful reminder of the holiday. I'm told that the great Michael Palin writes in his journal every morning when he's travelling and documents the previous day's events. Apparently this is because, in the light of a new day, he can write rationally about his experiences without being influenced by hunger, tiredness or any other stress that might have plagued him. I'm not sure that my trip will be as stressful as some of Michael Palin's epic adventures but it's an interesting idea.

8. Camera Equipment
As an avid amateur photographer I never go on any trip without at least one camera. On this trip I'll be taking two, my Canon DSLR for 'serious' photography and my Nikon Coolpix for occasions when I want to travel a little lighter. In preparation for this trip I've been swotting up on techniques that I think will be useful while I'm in Japan and bought a new lens and a couple of filters. I'm not going to let anything go undocumented on this trip! This holiday is also the first trip that I'll be taking a tripod too. My main motivation for this is that I've never managed to get a good shot of the breathtaking Tokyo night skyline and I'm determined to capture it this time. I'm also hoping to see a hanabi taikai or fireworks display, a quintessential Japanese summer experience, and a tripod will be invaluable for capturing that.

9. Backpack
As well as my lovely handbag I'm also taking a small backpack with me for lugging around cameras, lenses, notebooks and all those souvenirs. In the stifling heat of a Japanese summer you'll want to carry any considerable weight in as comfortable a way as possible and a backpack with padded straps is the best way to do this. Or perhaps get your husband to carry it for you ; )

10. More Books
Yep, that's right, more books! But this time they're novels. Everyone needs a holiday read or two, not least for the 12 hour long-haul flight but also for train journeys, sunny afternoons on the balcony or lazy days on the beach. The books pictured are actually reads from previous trips as I haven't actually chosen anything for this trip yet, if anyone has any suggestions I'd be glad to hear them.

11. iPad
I'm a fairly recent convert to the iPad and now I love it. I've loaded mine up with useful apps like a Japanese-English dictionary (which is saving me a lot of room in my suitcase!), useful links, notes and research, a couple of books and films and some entertainment for the flight like Scrabble and an app that's teaching me to play the hanafuda card game Koikoi. I don't know what I ever did without it!

12. Passport & Tickets 
Finally, and most importantly, I'm taking my passport and all the tickets and travel documents, which are tucked neatly into my smart new Cath Kidston travel wallet covered in pictures of trains (another lovely present from Mr Itsumo Japan), because, quite simply, I won't be going anywhere without them.

Have I missed anything? Do you have any advice for other brave travellers planning a summer trip to Japan? Then please tell me about them in the comments below ^_^

I hope this post has been entertaining and at least a little useful to anyone preparing for a trip to Japan. If you want more information about what to expect when you get to Japan or what you might need to pack there are a lot of excellent blogs out there packed full of advice but my favourite is the excellent Surviving in Japan which has a whole page dedicated to packing for Japan.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Review & Competition: Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C Morais

An entertaining read filled with charming descriptions and ancient haiku

by Richard C Morais
Alma Books
ISBN 1846882419
Price: £12.99
Author's website

This month I was contacted by the lovely people at Alma Books and offered the chance to review Richard C Morais' new book Buddhaland Brooklyn. They were also kind enough to send me an extra copy of the book to give away to one lucky reader but more on that later.

Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C Morais is the story of Seido Oda, a serious and introverted Buddhist monk who is sent from his peaceful mountain temple home in Japan to the noisy and raucous streets of New York where he will help to set up a new temple in Brooklyn. The believers that he meets are a far cry from the quiet and reverential followers that Oda is used to in Japan and the task of teaching them about enlightenment while coming to terms with both his past and his new surroundings is a difficult one.

I set about the task of reading Buddhaland Brooklyn with some trepidation. The 'fish out of water' story of Buddhist monk taken from his life of ancient ritual and tradition to live in the modern streets of Brooklyn seemed a little too cliched to me. And, on the whole I was correct. The main theme of the story is indeed not a new one but it is told with some moments of sensitivity and well-observed, nuanced writing. The early chapters of the book describing Oda's childhood contain some delightful and charming descriptions of life in rural Japan and I enjoyed the classic haiku that punctuate the whole story. The book is also sprinkled with references to Japanese culture and the odd Japanese word here and there that, though they occasionally felt a little forced and heavy-handed, did add a nice 'Japanese-ness' to the story.

When the action moves to America the descriptions of Oda's new neighbours and surroundings are equally as enjoyable. I've never visited the US myself but the streets and local colour of New York seemed to be portrayed in realistic detail. The characters however come across initially as a little two-dimensional and tended to rely a little too much on stereotype. I am undecided as to whether this is an intentional story-telling device or not. Some of these American characters did develop later though into more realistic depictions with some surprising quirks and as the story moved on there were some sensitively told and genuinely touching passages. The main star of the book though of course is it's main character Seido Oda. He slowly emerges from a stiff and serious monk to become truly likeable, I really found myself rooting for him towards the end of the book.

On the whole I enjoyed Buddhaland Brooklyn. It was by no means challenging or ground-breaking but it is an enjoyable easy read. The theme of Buddhism, reference to religious script and ancient practice (real or invented) add a little weight to the story and made me want to learn more about one of Japan's key religions. Since I know very little about Buddhism I can't comment on how accurate the references are but Morais does state at the end of the book that the characters, temple and sect that he describes are wholly invented. I think that this book would make a great holiday read especially to anyone that is interested in Japan and Japanese culture. If you want to read Buddhaland Brooklyn for yourself then please enter my competition below for your chance to win your own copy.

Buddhaland Brooklyn is Morais' 3rd book having written a biography of fashion designer Pierre Cardin  and The One Hundred Foot Journey, the story of an Indian chef who conquers the world of French haute cuisine. You can find out more on his website or read a short interview on the Alma Books site.

Win a copy of Buddhaland Brooklyn!

In Buddhaland Brooklyn Reverend Oda is forced to leave his quiet mountain temple to move to New York and often dreams of the lush green forest and sparkling waters of the mountainside village that he has left behind, his favourite place in Japan.

I have a copy of Buddhaland Brooklyn to give away and for your chance to win it all you have to do is tell me about your favourite place in Japan. Do you yearn to walk along the narrow back alleys of Kyoto's Gion district again? Does Tokyo's centre of otaku culture Akihabara hold a special place in your heart? Or are you desperate to return to the ancient temples of Nikko? If you haven't visited Japan don't worry you can still enter the competition. Just tell me about the place you'd love to visit if you had the chance.

There are 2 ways to enter for a chance to win your own copy of Buddhaland Brooklyn:

You can enter on Facebook by simply going to the Itsumo Japan Facebook page, liking the page and writing on the wall or you can enter on Twitter by following Itsumo Japan and sending me a tweet either way I want to hear all about your favourite place in Japan.

Good luck everyone!!

Terms & Conditions:
1. Competition closes on Sunday 30th June 2013.
2. All entrants' names will be put into a hat and a winner will be chosen at random.
3. The winner will be announced the following week on Facebook and Twitter.
4. The winner must provide their address (UK & Europe only sorry) and the book will be posted as soon as possible.
5. You must either like Itsumo Japan on Facebook or follow Itsumo Japan on Twitter to enter.

Monday, 29 April 2013

3 Months To Go: Preparing to Use My Japanese Skills in Japan

So another month has gone by and I'm a whole month closer to my trip to Japan so I thought that I would tell you about how I'm brushing up my Japanese skills and getting ready to use them in Japan. But first let me tell you a little bit about my Japanese language journey.

Way back in 2004 I fulfilled a lifelong ambition and travelled to Japan. I had just got married and Japan seemed like the perfect choice for a honeymoon as both me and my new husband had grown up hearing about Japan from teachers or grandparents, watching anime and reading manga.

This is me posing on that first trip just outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo.

So we set off on a two week trip armed with a copy of Lonely Planet and a phrasebook. We knew no Japanese at all on that first trip and survived on a few phrases that we picked out of the phrasebook. Though the language difference seemed completely overwhelming at first, not least because we couldn't understand any of the Japanese writing that we saw everywhere, we had a fantastic time and lots of wonderful experiences with nothing more than a few simple greetings, pleases and thank you's.

After that first trip I was hooked, Japan had lived up to and far exceeded my expectations and I wanted to learn as much about it as I could. I was completely enchanted by the complex little pictograms that I had seen everywhere and desperate to understand them. So my Japanese journey started, rather unusually with studying kanji. More conventional beginner's Japanese textbooks soon followed when I realised that I needed to understand at least some grammar to make sense of the kanji and kana that I was learning.

After falling entirely in love with Japan I hatched a plan to return and after a year or so of saving we went back for an amazing month, the whole of July 2006. This time I managed to shyly utter a few basic phrases and read, much to my excitement, a few basic kanji.

Here I am enjoying the view from the Sky Garden Observatory in Osaka.
Our next visit to Japan was in December 2007. Since my last trip I'd continued to study at home from various textbooks but my only exposure to spoken Japanese was from films and countless dorama watched online. Once again a lack of practice and shyness prevented me from using much of what I'd learnt.

This is us posing for a self-portrait at Odaiba, Tokyo.

This time however, I've vowed that things will be different. Since that last visit I've spent a semester at university, completed 2 years of evening classes, passed the N5 JLPT exam and taken private lessons for the last year. I have also managed to make friends with several Japanese people living here in Leeds which means I get chance to practice my skills and hear spoken Japanese quite often.

So here I am, 3 months away from my next trip to Japan with plenty of study under my belt and an urge to make it count this time. With that it mind I am working hard at the moment to revise and brush up on what I've learnt as much as I can.

And here is how I'm doing it ...

Weekly Lessons
As I mentioned above I am currently taking private lessons where I spend an hour every week with my teacher working through the chapters of Minna no Nihongo, an excellent textbook written entirely in Japanese script, and practicing the grammar structures and vocabulary. I also spend a few hours each week writing up my notes, jotting down new words and working through the exercises in the textbook.

I have used several Japanese textbooks in the past and Minna no Nihongo is my favourite. I am told by my teacher that the language used is very close to how people actually speak in Japan unlike in some other books and the vocabulary isn't overly related to business as in Japanese For Busy People.

I think it's important to work through each new chapter methodically making sure that new words and grammar are introduced, learnt and practiced. That way they stick in your head and you can use them in future conversations.

Kanji Textbook
Along with my lessons I am also using the Basic Kanji Book to learn more written Japanese in the hope that I will be able to read some basic information from signs and menus etc when I'm in Japan. The Basic Kanji Book is another favourite of mine. Each chapter introduces several new kanji along with reading and writing exercises. Each kanji and its stroke order is shown in a hand-written style making it easy to copy and learn while several compounds introduce useful words.

So far the only sure fire way that I have found to learn kanji is practice, practice, practice and there is no better way than to write them out repeatedly while trying to link them visually to their meaning, a task that I often find quite challenging! Another good way to test your kanji knowledge is by reading real life materials such as simple articles or Japanese children's books if you can get your hands on any.

At the moment I am making a stack of new flashcards every week as I encounter new words and kanji in my studies, I really think it's the best way to increase your vocabulary and commit those new words to memory. Though you can buy pre-made cards I prefer to make my own because writing out the words and kanji is all part of the learning process for me. I carry them with me everywhere and whenever I'm on a bus, waiting for friends or have slow day at the restaurant where I work I get them out and start testing myself, I've even roped in my husband and friends to test me too.

I've always used flashcards for pre-exam revision as it seems to be the most effective way to learn a lot of new words and as far as I see it preparing to use my language skills for real in Japan is like my biggest exam yet!

Conversation Practice
Anyone else studying Japanese will know that you can study from books and memorize long lists of vocabulary all you like but there is nothing like the challenge of actually speaking Japanese to other people. Over the last few years, through my lessons and making friends with Japanese people, I have been able to practice my spoken Japanese quite regularly. I still find it very challenging, sometimes my brain just won't think of the right word or verb conjugation quickly enough, but I've seen my ability come on leaps and bounds since I started doing it. So, before I go to Japan, I'm making sure that I speak as much Japanese as possible either to my Japanese tutor, to Japanese friends, to my (bewildered) husband and sometimes even to myself!

Bilingual Updates
Anyone that follows the Itsumo Japan Facebook page will know that I have been posting a 'Food I Want to Eat in Japan' everyday, partly to indulge my culinary fantasies and partly to promote this blog, but I also decided to write each post both in English and in Japanese. I have a few Japanese followers and friends online so I thought they'd appreciate it and also I thought that it would be a chance to use my Japanese everyday.

I'm not going to pretend that each update has been perfect, I suspect that there have been some glaring errors that have made my teacher shudder but I have enjoyed the challenge of trying to express myself in Japanese. Sometimes it was really hard but I figure that the more I practice stringing sentences together the more successful I'll be in Japan.

Watching Dorama and Films
Using Japanese, of course, isn't all about speaking, you have to listen too and I don't think there's a more fun way to practice that than watching your favourite Japanese dorama and films. It's a really great way to get used to hearing the new words and grammar forms that you've learned being used and it's always very gratifying when you realise that you can understand some of what's being said, however small.

Mostly I watch with subtitles because my Japanese is just not that good and I want to know what's going on but I still feel like it's a really worthwhile (and fun) part of my studies. Recently though, as I prepare for my trip I have started watching a few un-subtitled programmes and, though I couldn't understand everything that was said, I did understand the odd whole sentence here and there and enough to follow the story, and that felt great!

 Creating My Own Phrasebook
The final thing that I'm doing to prepare my Japanese skills for use in Japan is creating my own phrasebook. This may sound a little ambitious but don't worry, I'm not attempting to write a whole book, I'm just collecting together some words, phrases and kanji that I've happened across through my studies that I think will be useful when I'm in Japan.

Although I always take a conventional phrasebook with me as well (usually the excellent Lonely Planet  Japanese Phrasebook) I thought that it would be good to put some of the stuff I've been learning from textbooks and lessons to use. So I'm planning to write out these useful words and phrases and carry them with me in the hope that I get to use them in some real life situations.

So that's my plan for preparing to use my Japanese skills in Japan. What do you think? How have you brushed up your skills before visiting Japan and how did it go? I'd love to hear about what you think works and what wasn't so successful.

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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World-Cruise: Atmospheric and Beautiful Videos of Everyday Japan

I first discovered these videos on YouTube a few months ago but as my trip to Japan grows ever, tantalisingly closer I'm becoming more obsessed with them.

Made by free-lance filmmaker Yuki Eikawa, known as Egawauemon on YouTube and Twitter, the World-Cruise videos are filmed in various locations all around the world including Japan. Many are shot from various vantage points; street corners, quiet alleyways or busy crossings where the everyday is recorded as it passes by the camera. Shoppers bustle past in Akihabara, a postman delivers mail along the backstreets of Gion, stallholders set up early in the morning on Ueno's Ameyoko and workers tout for business for nearby bars on Osaka's Dotonbori. Others are filmed as Eikawa walks along the streets and back alleys himself where in Tokyo he records a wedding procession at Meiji Jingu, fishermen at Tsukiji Market and and the bright neon of Kabukicho at night. A cruise around Osaka takes us along a quiet early morning Dotonbori populated by commuters and deliverymen, through old-school shopping streets and modern shopping malls and along the famous nearby canal before returning to Dotonbori after dark to see it thronged with revellers. This is another wonderful feature of these videos, each location is filmed throughout the day allowing you to observe how they change from morning to night.

The quality of the videos is out-standing with crystal clear images and bright colours. You almost feel like you're there amongst the passersby exploring the locations for yourself. But it's not all about the beautiful visuals of these films, the soundtrack of everyday Japan is also recorded. The cacophony of sounds familiar to anyone who has spent time in Japan from the echoing call of a crow to the distinctive blip of a pedestrian crossing, the irrashimase of a trader selling yakisoba and okonomiyakipachinko parlour jingles, the persistant buzz of summer cicada and trains rattling past overhead all add to the extremely atmospheric feel of these films. To say that they make me feel nostalgic would be an understatement!

There are many documentaries and TV programmes out there about Japan offering insight into all aspects of life and culture (my article 'Documentaries & Programmes About Japan' lists many of them) but if you want a little slice of the everyday then please check out Yuki Eikawa's videos. Whether you're planning your first trip to Japan or you're a regular visitor you're sure to enjoy them. I can't explain to you how much I enjoy watching them and immersing myself back into the sights and sounds of Japan just for a little while. 

This 'cruise' around Tokyo is one of my favourites ...

For more videos visit the World-Cruise YouTube channel, the World-Cruise website or the Itsumo Japan YouTube channel where I've collected together some of my favourite World-Cruise Japan videos. Enjoy!