Home Stretch

Just a few more hours.  Four months seemed like an eternity when we began and feels like a flickering of an eyelash now.  It has not dimmed our enthusiasm.  We will be happy to be home among our family, our friends and our colleagues, but we will also truly miss much of what we will leave behind.

We are therefore on the lookout for a better Japanese word than シャーデンフロイデ (sha-den-fu-ro-i-de – thanks, Google Translate) to describe our feelings.

Some measured reflections are certainly in order but our overwhelming feeling about our time in Japan has been joy.  Joy at the beauty and diversity of our surroundings, wherever we have been, whether in our remarkable Aoyama neighborhood with its constant new discoveries or the many places we have visited in Tokyo and beyond; joy at how safe we have felt, whether in crowded trains, the amazing 渋谷スクランブル (Shibuya Scramble, or su-ku-ran-be-ru) or narrow streets at night; joy at the dozens of tiny pleasures, such as the daily performance of the crossing guard at the Cerulean Tower Hotel or the cheerful greetings we receive in every shop, restaurant and train station we frequent; and joy at the reaction of our visitors to this remarkable country.

We came to Japan for several reasons, but one of the most important has been to improve our Japanese language skills.  We have surely accomplished this but we have come to appreciate what a gigantic task this is and how much we still have to learn to acquire an acceptable level of competence. We intend to keep going.

School finished for Michael two weeks ago – true to form, for the last two days (since the outing to the beer museum), the teachers have kept plugging away with a pretty intense preview of next semester’s grammar, but on the last day, even they are throwing a party in which we will learn . . . Japanese dancing – the coal miners’ dance from Kyushu, known all over Japan.  And then, a sort of speed dating session with another class at which we had to introduce ourselves, over and over again, to people we didn’t know.

We have spoken more than once about feeling safe.  We won’t pretend that Japan is a society without crime, violent or petty, but walking around just about anywhere, we have never once felt that sense of threat or insecurity that characterizes living in Los Angeles, even in the comparatively safe neighborhood where we live.  And the contrast has been reinforced by the events in Orlando and Dallas, where the U.S. epidemic of gun violence has been met with continuing widespread denial and the abject failure of our government to respond adequately – we refuse even to let the Center for Disease Control study the problem.  Japan, on the other hand, is a country where gun deaths and violence have essentially been eliminated – as discussed in an a 2012 article in the Atlantic magazine.

How much still awaits us on future visits – a sumo wrestling tournament, a Kabuki performance, visits to places far and near, such as Hokkaido to the north, Kyushu to the far west, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Sendai, Chiba, the Isu Peninsula to name a few.  And how much we have done – so many museums, temples, parks and gardens, train rides long (to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Kamakura and Yokohama) and short (we truly are masters of Tokyo transit), baseball and soccer games, shopping and eating out and long walks everywhere.  Fiona has visited over 30 museums, several more than once, and Michael has been to a great many of them; the list of other things we have done is also lengthy. It’s been a full and fulfilling four months, as I hope this blog has conveyed.

We must say a few words about the Oakwood Apartments, our home for the past four months.  The apartment itself was well-equipped, quiet and spacious (a real luxury in space-starved Japan) and the spare room ideal for guests – both comfortable and small enough not to encourage people to stay for too long!    We were very well-looked after by the housekeeping staff, who cleaned the apartment twice a week (whether it needed it or not) and also fixed whatever minor items needed attention, with a lightning response time.  But above all, we were lucky to be helped by the front desk, staffed from 7 am to 10 pm and often beyond by five charming and efficient ladies – Aya (亜矢), Ayaka (綾香), Izumi (依泉), Keiko (恵子) and Miki (実希).

A few more blog posts to come – we must catch up on our day in Yokohama, visits to the Tokyo Skytree and also to the Tomoe Soroban Company (the abacus company), and our farewell party.  We know we will be consumed by Los Angeles and our “regular” lives as soon as we come home, so this is a marker to remind us.  We’ll also add some more photos.

Read the Signs

I was handed this political flier and I think I will start a competition for a Hillary Clinton logo based on it .



Staying safe:

Just don’t:

And who is this person dripping a wet umbrella in the subway? Not me, but sure looks like it…….!


Saddest street art



Maybe he should go here for a coffee

Or better still.

The small slimy brown mushrooms may not cheer him up (truth in advertising) but how about beer on a stick? The only thing Isak didn’t try during his visit. He ate all the fish, octopus, sticky rice balls, everything on a stick!

The flower shops are gorgeous. And wow! I wish I had thought of this when marketing The Flower Girl.

Here I am – not in Beverly Hills!
Still not in Beverly Hills.


Working on it……


Next Blog:The Samurai Museum, which was absolutely wonderful.

何かを習いましたか. Have we learned anything? 


Returning to Tokyo from a week back in Los Angeles is a good time to reflect on how we are getting along with the Japanese language. 何かを習いましたか (nanika o naraimashita ka – have we learned anything?)

The Naganuma School intensive course is living up to its name. We have studied hard.  It is, however, difficult to tell how we are doing, because progress is necessarily incremental.  (Incremental is a fancy word for slow, we think.)

So what constitutes progress?  Communication in a developed language generally involves four elements: Speaking, listening, reading and writing.  Japanese presents major challenges for Western learners in particular because it has little in common with anything we are used to. Even when Japanese borrows words from English and other European languages, it often changes them in ways that are not immediately obvious.  (See Tea Time, Springtime.)

We’ve probably made the most progress in speaking and writing, because there we control the process.  We need to learn 2,000 Kanji, which takes years rather than months, but we can often decipher Kanji, especially online, with the help of a site like www.furiganizer.com, which gives both phonetic readings and, if we want to peek, translations.  For signs and Kanji we meet in the real world, if it’s critical or merely to satisfy our curiosity, the Google Translate app on our phones allows us to scan and recognize Kanji.  Writing Kanji is also not as hard as you might think because of how virtual Japanese keyboards work, where they will suggest Kanji if you can spell the word phonetically.  So Kanji, as hard as it is and as much as we need to improve, is not our biggest problem.

For us, the hardest by far is understanding the spoken language.  Japanese people speak quickly, to our ears, and Japanese has so many homonyms that processing them, even when we know the context, can be a big challenge.  If we process speech too slowly, we may get the first part of a sentence but actually don’t hear the second part of a sentence – a problem in a language where verbs pile up at the end of the sentence.

So what can we do now?  Well, we can have basic conversations, especially if we can persuade people we talk to to respond slowly.  Gestures, occasional English-sounding words and animated facial expressions also help.  In person communications are much easier than phone calls.

We have also found that we can watch Japanese video with subtitles and realize we knew some, and occasionally a lot, of what we just heard.  This will prove invaluable in improving comprehension, especially of normal spoken Japanese, as opposed to the highly formal and grammatical usage we are taught in school.  On that score, we occasionally get told by Japanese people that our Japanese  is too perfect – perfectly absurd, of course – but we get their point.  We sound like walking textbooks.

An interesting test approaches.  Our beloved Los Angeles teacher Hiromi is coming to visit her parents in Yokohama and we will be meeting them all.  Hiromi, of all people, will be able to gauge how we are doing.  If her opinion is not unduly humiliating – well, even if it is – we will report back in this space.

Tea Time, Springtime

We are coming to the end of Golden Week, the week when Japan incongruously has major public holidays on the last Friday in April and then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the first week of May, leaving everyone to work, or, in our case, go to school, on Monday and Friday.

Japan, unlike Southern California, is a land of seasons.  Two months ago, when we got here, the cold was quite sharp, relieved only by the arrival of cherry blossoms in late March.  Now, it’s May and the weather is pleasant indeed.  The rainy season and the beginnings of a hot and humid Tokyo summer await us next month, but for now, we are happily venturing out without sweaters, umbrellas or Uniqlos .

We have used some of our time off to catch up with our studies – the Naganuma School isn’t kidding when it calls our course “intensive”.  But we have also had a few outings into this city of contrasts.

Saturday, we paid a visit to the Riviera Sports Club, where we swam laps in a pool that looked like the set of Scarlett Johansson’s swim on Lost in Translation.  (That actually took place at the Tokyo Park Hyatt.)  Here is the sign at the entrance.  Most of it is in Katakana, the syllabic alphabet with which foreign loan words are adapted into Japanese.  We have added transliterations – remember, these all started out as real English words.  See if you can guess what they mean!  At the end of this post, we have added a version with actual translations.


OK, on to other activities.

On Sunday, we went for a walk in Aoyama that began with a close-up view of political protest, Japanese-style.

On Thursday, we were lucky enough to be invited to a tea ceremony, conducted by a renowned tea master (or mistress, I suppose).  One of the staff at our school happens to be a friend of the tea master and asked us to accompany her to the ceremony, which took place at the at the Tokyo National Museum of Art, Tokyo’s equivalent to the Met or the National Gallery of London (or LACMA!).  This was quite an honor and so we donned our Thursday best and zoomed across central Tokyo on the Ginza line to Ueno Park, scene of some of our more spectacular cherry blossom viewings six weeks before.

Tokyo National Museum: Fountains and Haniwa – Kofun period clay figurines from the 6th century placed on top of tombs.

Ueno Park – late March – early May.

Children’s Day is celebrated this week and there was a Book Fair in Ueno Park which showed us that children’s books are a thriving business. So many wonderful and beautifully illustrated books! Michael is now reading his favorite Babar, in hiragana.


Here are some random things from our life: our local flower stall; our low maintenance garden; vending machines: is this meal hot or just casually cold?; slippers provided whilst shoes are mended; how to time the tea infusion; poster for a great exhibition of 19th century woodblock prints, we spent hours there (loan from the MFA, Boston).

And the maple leaves are out; the trio of my no-English, fabulous hairdressers; how much more traditional than a Japanese lantern?

And finally, here is the Riviera Sports Club sign, translated.