Fire flowers in the summer

Along with the heat, rain and intense humidity, summer brings something spectacular in Japan – fireworks (hanabi) season. Literally translated, hanabi means “fire flowers”, a way cooler name that is quite possibly worth stealing.

There’s a lot of hanabi events in Tokyo at this time of year – just about every weekend you’ll find one. These shows are not done by halves – they are BIG. The particular one we attended was on a river with people crowding the banks on both sides, and lasted for an hour and a half.

As you arrive, you’re handed a program which precisely details the evening’s events – a pyrotechnic banquet menu of sorts. It catalogs two to ten minute courses of different types of fireworks, launched by different teams trying to make the neatest looking explosions. At 8:30pm exactly, as advertised, the fireworks finish. There was no vaguely synchronised 80’s rock soundtrack. There was no F-111 flyover. Just spectacular fireworks, the likes of which ye… err, me… had never seen.

The other nice touch is that lots of guys and girls dress traditionally to come to these events, wearing cotton kimonos (yukatas) and wooden sandals, enjoying a beer as they watch the fireworks. There are a lot of stalls and other entertainment running around the place too, giving the whole evening a really nice community feel. Tip – get there early, the good places fill up fast!

I took some shots as well, of course, which took a few contortions when dealing with the large crowd, most of whom were sitting down. I kept trying to creep my tripod up a bit higher to get better shots, and got very politely told off on a couple of occasions. I compromised on an uncomfortable crouching position, but managed to get the shots I wanted. You can see more at the fireworks gallery (try the slideshow).

Next weekend – another fireworks show. But this one’s bigger. I’m not sure how’s that’s possible, but I’ll find out…



Sprechen the Japanese?

Update: if you’re learning Japanese, you might also like to read about some useful language-learning tools.

With my long-overdue enrollment last week in a Japanese school, I realise I have been remiss in explaining the unique experiences involved with being immersed in a foreign – make that, very foreign language. So, here’s a four-month newbie’s guide to Japanese:

Japanese alphabets

First off, you’re blessed with not one, but three alphabets:

Actually, there’s also a kind of B-side alphabet – romanji, which is writing Japanese words using Roman characters (like I’ve done below). It’s kind of a cheaty alphabet for beginners and those without Japanese character sets on their computers.

Some interesting differences

  • All three alphabets are used together in writing. That may sounds complex, but is actually handy given the next point…
  • Written Japanese has no spaces to separate words – everything runs together. This gave me a lot of grief to begin with. After a while, you start to recognise elements of grammar that separate subjects, objects, verbs and adjectives. The type of alphabet used gives some important clues.
  • The basic sentence structure in English is Subject-Verb-Object:I went to the store.The basic sentence structure in Japanese is Subject-Object-Verb:Watashi wa mise ni ikimashita.
    I store to went.
  • Pronouns are often dropped. Rather than saying “I did x”, you would just say “did x”, and your speaker would assume you are talking about yourself. In fact, you probably find the above example would be said like this, with yourself assumed as the subject:Mise ni ikimashita.
    Went to store.This tends to make Japanese sounds very abrupt when you first learn it, but is grammatically correct and very frequently used.
  • Spoken Japanese has much less pitch modulation. People vary their tone to add emotion, of course, but unlike English which usually stresses a particular syllable in each word, Japanese words are pronounced much “flatter”, with each syllable stressed more evenly.Try it – say “tomato” as you would normally, stressing the “ma”. Now, say it while evenly stressing all syllables and you’ll get an idea.
  • Words can be written horizontally and left to right, or vertically and right to left. You usually see the vertical text used in books and comics and the like – most everything else is regular left to right.
  • Almost no plurals! Items are either counted, or the plurality is assumed from context. Whether you bought one or more books, you say “bought book”.
  • Although Japanese has more characters than English, it surprisingly (or not) has many less sounds. Think about how many ways you can pronounce “a” in English, or that “g” and “h” make different noises separately, but a different sounds together. After all, English is the language where you can famously pronounce “fish” and “ghoti” exactly the same way. In Japanese, “a” is always pronounced one way only.A pool of less sounds means that:
    • Many words sound very similar. Accuracy counts. It makes both speaking and listening a more difficult for a beginner – similar words always seem to run together in my mind. On the plus side, it give you excellent faux pas opportunities when you mispronounce words, because odds are that you’ll be saying another valid word. Which, given my past experiences, is often to hilarious effect.
    • On the plus side, there are many homonyms. So, you can learn one word and bond the multiple meanings together in your mind. Plus, there are plenty of punning opportunities, if you swing that way.

Some good differences

  • Hands up if you pronounced “corps” correctly the first time you said it after reading it? You’re lying, put your hands down. Japanese has the lovely feature that every word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled.
  • More consistent grammar rules (so far). I’m so glad I learned English with my spongy infant mind – conjugating English verbs is a right b*stard. The past tense of “smash” is “smashed”. The past tense of “throw” is “threw”. The past tense of “hit” is “hit”. Crazy. But that’s what you get when you go around robbing other languages willy-nilly.Basic Japanese has three families of verbs which follow fairly regular conjugation rules. Not to say I’m any good at it though – you still have to learn the rules!

Some bad differences

  • Counting is a nightmare. Some numbers have multiple pronunciations, which seem to be arbitrarily used in different situations. There’s one word to count long, thin objects, like chopsticks. There’s another word to count flat objects, like dinner plates. There’s more words to count machines, stories of a building, people…. and so on. Better yet, the pronunciation of the numbers changes from number to number, and between different object types.
  • Even after learning the meaning of kanji pictographs, you may still not know how to say them. And there may be two or more ways to pronounce a single kanji. Oh, and you can then put the kanji together to make compounds and whole new words. Though these often make sense and are kind of fun to guess at – for example, the characters for “telephone” comes from “electric” and “speech”.
  • Until you can read over 2100 characters and have some vocab under your belt, you’re effectively illiterate and mute. Good luck with that. There’s always the universal language though – pointing at stuff.

Enough for now! Next episode: how glorious technology saves the day (again).

Everything’s always a contest with you

Now, Japanese food is almost uniformly excellent, but every now and then it’s possible to get a craving for Western style food at 2 am. And if that’s your game, you can’t go past the popular 24-hour diner Jonathan’s for a fix of greasy home-style cooking. Like this:

…or not. Okay. I have a policy here to eat first and ask questions later. A policy which has seen me eat deep-fried flowers and raw horse, but a policy which has rarely steered me wrong. Until now.

If you would like to make tomato ice-cream, here’s how it’s done:

1. Take tomato sauce.

2. Freeze.

3. Eat.

4. Lordy.

Still, there’s always a refreshing drink to wash the taste away:

In its defense, I haven’t tried this yet, but I was feeling slightly down on red vegetables after my first outing.

On the flip side, I took some Darrell Lea liquorice into work today, which has been scientifically proven as awesome. For a lot of my co-workers, this was the first time they had ever tried liquorice.

However, instead of the looks of fawning admiration I was banking on for introducing this miracle into their lives, I noticed much more of a subtle, kind of “horrified revulsion” vibe going on.  The best compliment I got is that it was like eating an old tire.

So by my calculations, in the Antipodean-Japanese Battle of Gastronomic Terror, that’s one bowl of tomato ice-cream to one bag of liquorice.  The score is 1-all.  Bring it on, I say.

Golden Gai

There’s an area in Shinjuku called Golden Gai, a narrow maze of criss-crossing streets dense with tiny drinking holes. It’s an alcoholic oasis from a different era of Japan, hidden in amongst the ultra-modern neon and the intense crowds of a Saturday night in Shinjuku.

The Tomorrow bar that a small group of us went to was run by a lovely lady – she was the only staff member there, and possibly owned it too. I took this photo with my back against the wall near the front door, to give you an idea of the size. You could sit maybe 6 or 7 people there total, with only a little standing room left after that. It’s much like having a drink in someone’s kitchen at their breakfast bar.

A lot of the bars have themes, to give them that unique feel. One we passed was a blues bar, another a slightly alternative hippie vibe, another had deep brown hardwood floors and a sophisticated cigar-and-cognac feel to it. Another one we almost went in to reeked of fish. I don’t know if that was their theme, though.

The size of these places give them an intimate feel, like you’re a guest rather than a customer. My understanding is that many of the bars cater to regulars and they’re not really geared to foreigners very much. So, there were a few communication troubles, at least until a Japanese friend turned up to interpret.

Now, some wisdom if you ever want to go to Golden Gai. As it turned out, there was a group reservation due soon, so we only had time for one drink. A good thing too. Many of these bars have a “seating charge” of around $5, plus the cost of the drinks, which are not too cheap either. So, the vodka and cranberry I ordered cost about $16 overall. It’s not unheard of to pay that much for a fancy cocktail in Australia too, but just a warning that it will cost a little bit more than what’s printed on the menu.

At any rate, my drink wasn’t actually a vodka and cranberry after all – I think it was vodka and some sort of red rocket fuel. So, I got my money’s worth.

The service was fantastic – we were served delicious, lightly salted edamame (soy beans in the shell), and looked after very well. The atmosphere of the place had a very secluded, sophisticated feel to it.

Golden Gai is an incredibly interesting, charismatic area, with so many unique places to explore. You might want to make sure you have a good bankroll and smattering of Japanese or a Japanese friend first, though!

Bigger better barcodes

Here’s something very, very useful that I had never seen before I came to Japan:

See the fuzzy-looking square to the right? It’s called a QR code. A QR code is a 2D barcode that can contain up to 4000 characters – enough to store things like URLs and co-ordinates.

The beauty of QR codes is that they’re designed to be read using a regular digital camera. The squares in the corners of the code that you can see are used to align the image correctly.

One of the reasons this has taken off in Japan is that it perfectly aligns with the Japanese trend of having fantastically complex and functional mobile phones. So, using your camera phone, snap a picture of the QR code using the special scanning software, and it immediately interprets the data. If it’s a URL, browse directly there on your mobile phone. If it’s the map co-ordinates of a restaurant, let the phone’s built-in GPS unit tell you which way you need to walk from where you are to get there. It’s a very easy and convenient way to transfer digital information from physical objects into digital devices.

QR codes are everywhere in Japan. Advertisements, delivery dockets, confirmation slips, posters, magazines. For example, when I got my heartbreakingly fast cable Internet installed, the installation confirmation letter came with a QR code. Scan it with your phone, and your phone’s built-in web browser connects to a web page where you can pick your preferred installation time. Of course, the web page already knows it’s you because your customer ID is coded into the barcode too. Sure enough, the installation guys came at the time I selected, all without having to go through a call-centre. Sensational.

What would make it even more sensational would be owning a phone that could actually do all this. My current loaner phone is lacks some of the mod cons like a camera, but at least the menus are in English. So, looks like a shopping adventure is in the works soon. More on mobile phone culture soon!