Extravagant: Switch it on and off

Happy New Year! This post is a bit of an experiment; I decided to try out reacting to a prompt. If you’re interested in reading something a little introspective, take a peek under the cut!

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New Year’s in Japan: Practical Tips

New Year’s means a lot of things to lots of different people. For some, it means going out with friends and seeking out a party. For others, it’s relaxing at home and watching the countdown/fireworks on the television. For yet others, it means a chance to go to bed early and sleep in the next day.

Japanese New Year’s is similarly flexible- to an extent. You’ll find any number of posts floating around about which shrine or temple to visit at midnight January 1st; what kind of soba to eat; whether you should shell out for KFC’s Christmas chicken or not. (Spoiler: Family Mart Chicken is cheaper and a great alternative.) But there’s something I’ve noticed missing: the practicalities.

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Post-JLPT recovery

So, who else here just took the JLPT? 乙 to you!

How did it go? Do you feel confident about your results, or did you spend the entirety of the test berating yourself for not studying harder? Or are you somewhere in between? Whatever the case, you’ve just been through an extremely rigidly structured test, and it’s time to reward yourself for doing it. But how?

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Yamashina’s Bishamon-do

​What do you want to do when you retire? Maybe you’re already there and living life the way you want. Maybe you’re in university and can’t even imagine what being retired looks like. Or maybe you’re someone who feels they’ll never stop working, no matter what.

The other day I talked with an older Japanese gentleman who was excited to be leaving the workforce. When I asked him what his plans were post-retirement, he beamed and produced a booklet that I recognized as one that’s often sold at temples. “I am going to visit every temple and shrine in Kyoto. After that, maybe I’ll branch out to the Kansai region, but this book only covers the “Kyoto pilgrimage”. He eyed it fondly for a moment before returning it to his bag. “I’ll start the first weekend after my retirement party.” 

This sort of plan is not uncommon in Japan; should you find yourself at a train station early on a weekend morning don’t be too surprised to find a whole bunch of older folks with hiking paybacks, walking sticks, and pamphlets for the latest popular hiking location in their hands. It’s something I greatly admire about folks in Japan; this motivation to get out and see things like they’ve probably dreamed of for decades, but only now have the chance to do.

Another reason I think it’s so cool is that there are so. Many. Temples. Especially in Kyoto. Stay here a week and try visiting nothing but temples and shrines and I guarantee you’ll burn yourself out. You think you’re done after Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji and Sanjuusangendo? What about Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji temples? Shimogamo Shrine? Eikan-do? That tiny neighborhood temple you’ve walked by ten times already whose name you can’t find or read? 

I’m not nearly as gung-ho about hitting up every single temple like that gentleman, but I do like having new things to do. And places to visit. And despite living in Kyoto city, do you know where I almost never venture unless it’s for work?

Yamashina ward, Kyoto City. 

I emphasize that it’s part of the city because for the longest time I didn’t realize it was. You go through a mountain to reach it from Kyoto Station, after all! But Yamashina is a quieter, suburban area compared to downtown Kyoto and as such tends to get overlooked by tourists unless you have friends In The Know.

There is a lot to do in Yamashina; remember when I was taken to meet an Urushi-san? That was only a few minutes away from JR Yamashina station by taxi. There’s the canal that leads all the way into Lake Biwa. And tucked away, only a fifteen minute walk behind Yamashina station, is one of many gorgeous places to take in the autumn leaves (and some Japanese history)– Bishamon-do temple. 

Bishamon-do is said to enshrine one of Japan’s Seven Lucky God’s of Fortune, Bishamonten. Given I had no idea, I was confused at first when I arrived and saw all these signs saying the latter name and assumed it was another name for the temple. (I admittedly dropped the ball on researching the before going, as my main goal was to see pretty leaves.) Bishamonten, by the way, is the Lord of Treasure and Wealth. The more you know, right? 

Anyway, the place was established in 703 and wasn’t always in Yamashina- it was originally up around the Kyoto Imperial Palace until a few hundred years ago. It is well-known for not only autumn leaves but also for it’s cherry blossoms in spring.

When you reach Yamashina station on basically any train line, exit the gates and look for the Starbucks. There’s a pedestrian tunnel next, to it you can take to get behind the JR station. After that it’s a simple matter of following the signs and going uphill till you reach it. If you cross over the canal, you’re going the right way!

Admission to the temple grounds is free but if you want to enter the main hall, it’ll run you 500 yen (and require you to take off your shoes). We opted to forego entering the hall but still spent a good two hours admiring everything the grounds had to offer.

There are a number of smaller temples nearby, as well as a cemetery. You can enter the cemetery but please don’t take pictures! Admire it and move on– there is no shortage of other cool things to snap photos of. 

There were not many foreign tourists there but I did see some signs in English, including on the signs that point you to the temple in the first place! If you’re in town and want to check out some nature or some history away from the throngs of people at bigger-name places, go check this place out. Especially on a weekday, you’ll get a breath of fresh air, and maybe make a friend or two in the shape of some locals.

Did  you go anywhere to see autumn leaves this year?

Language learning: Mistakes are so important

I have favorite age groups and levels of ability when it comes to teaching people English. One of them is the ages between 7-9. These are kids who are old enough to know better, but young enough to happily do dumb things with you in class so long as you show actual enthusiasm for it. As students get into the preteen age, you see them slowly and inevitably start to withdraw as they try to figure out what on earth is happening to them. Understandable, we’ve all been there. (Unless you’re five, in which case, I’m amazed at your reading skills.)

But unfortunately, it can cut into their language learning in some ways, especially when a few get hit particularly hard with the need to Play It Cool.

I was this kid; in German class I learned how to say “I don’t understand”, “I don’t know”, and “I don’t speak German” early on so I could deflect any questions the teacher asked me. My teacher at the time was gracious enough not to press the issue. But looking on it, I regret it because of what else I might have been able to learn if I had tried.

I find myself facing the situation as an instructor, and don’t think I’m nearly as gracious.

Teachers appreciate the student who speaks up every time, even if there are mistakes, because then we can help you say what you want to say. If you say nothing, we have no means to help you, and so your skills just… become stagnant.

So, with that in mind, I want to give a shout-out to all the people out there who attend language classes but, for whatever reason, find themselves unable or unwilling to speak up in front of classmates. I’d also like to give a little reassurance/advice:

Mistakes are actually a really important part of learning a language. Think back on when you were a kid. The plural for cat was cats, and for dog was dogs, but for mouse wasn’t mouses, so an adult in your life likely had to correct you on this once or twice before you got it down. It’s normal, and nobody will make fun of you for saying something goofy in a language class.

Saying something, anything, will help you and your teacher more than hiding away. If you don’t get the grammar point, ask for help. If you don’t know the vocabulary, do your best to say a word similar to it, or ask if you can peek at a dictionary. Gesturing, drawing a picture or, at the very end of it all, asking if you can say the word in your native language are all other techniques. Don’t give up until you have the word you’re looking for.

I’d like to share a story from when I was learning Japanese.

We had started with a warm-up question about rules for the road. Don’t drive too fast, wear a seatbelt, etc. I was following along okay with it, or so I thought, as someone described what you shouldn’t do on a sidewalk. Suddenly, the teacher turned to me and asked me a question. Thinking we were still discussing sidewalks, I said something like, “My neighborhood in the States doesn’t have sidewalks, so we had to walk on the road and it was dangerous.”

Everyone started giggling.

I was confused until a friend pulled up her dictionary on her phone and showed me the word I’d used for sidewalk: it was actually the word for sunburn. The teacher had changed the subject earlier and been asking if people in the class easily get sunburn.


I tell you what, though, I’m never forgetting either the word for sunburn (日焼け) or sidewalk (歩道)!

What’s your language learning mistake story? What do you wish you’d done more of when you were learning a foreign language? If you’re a teacher, how do you help coax students out of “playing cool”?

Taiko: Back to the heart

When I was a kid, I thought the U-shaped desk arrangement in classrooms was the dumbest thing ever. There was no privacy there; you were staring your classmates in the face, and there was this huge awkward space in the middle of the room. Also, there was that much less of a chance of sitting near your friends because you only had some people to either side of you, not in front or behind.

I was reminded of this sentiment today in taiko class… and how my opinion of it has changed.

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