The bird that never was

Some months ago while at an unfamiliar Tokyo subway station, I was startled to hear the clear sound of a cheerfully twittering bird. Here, 30 meters underground, in the all steel-and-concrete bowels of the Tokyo Metro? It seemed that some birds aren’t very picky with places to nest.

After listening for a while, though, I eventually realised that it just was a recording of a bird call playing at 10 second intervals. At the time, i dismissed it as a futile attempt to humanize the sterile steel and concrete environment of the Tokyo Metro, to cheer up exhausted, overworked salary men during the crush of rush hour. Somehow, I don’t think a bird call is going to do it.

Tonight, however, I finally got the crucial clue to solve the mystery. The loudspeaker making the bird noises is mounted at the base of the platform’s exit staircase. Looking closer showed a small symbol of a man with a white cane.

In other words, blind people can follow the bird call to navigate their way out of the dense maze of the subway. Better yet, it does it in a way that’s unobtrusive and even pleasant for other passengers. Fantastic design.

In a cafe in Nikko

When you’ve got a Japan-related blog, one of the biggest temptations is to fill it with what I’ll politely call “fashion English”, but which is more commonly known by another term.  Three reasons to avoid that, really:

  1. After seeing excessive numbers of grammatically correct but indefinably strange English on T-shirts every single day, it takes a particularly outrageous example to even raise an eyebrow now.
  2. At least people here have the sense to display odd, exotic languages on T-shirts rather than emblazoning them on their bodies indelibly.
  3. I am acutely aware that my Japanese must sound at least as strange as these shirts in ways I cannot even begin to fathom.

Well, I’m cashing in one of my free spins here. These were in the lunchtime menu of a small cafe in Nikko, and for some reason I found them very charming. Perhaps it’s because I can imagine the cafe owner’s 10-year old niece taking to a sunny piece of floor one autumn afternoon, a stack of A4 paper before her, felt-tip pens scattered all around her, brow furrowed in concentration as she draws deeply upon the English she’d been eagerly learning at school, emerging 4 hours later to proudly show off the results of her labours.

Or maybe they’re mass-produced by the Mitsubishi Printing Company and every regional cafe throughout Japan has them.  I’m not sure which it is.

A cafe in Nikko 3

A cafe in Nikko 2

A cafe in Nikko

Hey, who wants candy?

Last weekend I went to Nikko, a historical area about two hours away from Tokyo. It was a great chance to road test my new Sony Alpha-300 (finally, a flip screen on a DSLR). Hopefully I can upload some of those photos soon, but before I do that, there’s one particular photo I just can’t get past.

A widespread Japanese tradition is omiyage, or souvenirs, very often in the form of food. You’d normally be expected to buy these for your co-workers and friends whenever you go away on a trip. Omiyage are often specialised to each region, playing off famous sights or local delicacies.

One of the most famous sights in Nikko are the “3 monkeys“. They’re actually not too big in person, perched just above a doorway:

Three monkeys

So, to play off that while preserving the air of grandeur and history of the area, a local specialty would be:

Saru no unpii

…faux monkey poo. The label reads “saru no unpii”. “Saru” means monkey, “no” is like apostrophe s, but I couldn’t find “unpii” in any of my dictionaries. When you put it into the mighty Google though, you’ll be treated to lots of lovely pictures of cat… “leavings”.

But here I am explaining when… well, just look at it. Truly, graphic representations of animal digestive tracts are the international language.

Typing Japanese

One of the many mysteries I didn’t understand before I came to Japan was how Japanese keyboards worked when there are so many characters. After all, there are 2000 Chinese characters to know before you’re considered literate. How could you fit all those keys on a keyboard? Since Japan isn’t famous for dragging around suitcase-sized laptops (quite the opposite), yes, there’s another way.

Mac wireless keyboard, JA version

You’ll notice that the keyboard above (the ultra-stylish Apple wireless keyboard, comes with bonus soy latte) is normal QWERTY, though with Japanese characters too. Here’s the trick: the Japanese characters largely just make it look cool. You could use the Japanese character keyboard mapping, but most people seem to use it like a normal QWERTY keyboard, inputting Japanese characters using their Roman letter equivalents.

There’s a slight twist to this, though. Basic Japanese characters can have one (“a”), two (“ka”) or three (“chi”) Roman characters in them. For example, you want to type “kaeru”, which is the potential form verb “can buy”. On your keyboard, you’d type “k-a e r-u”, and end with three characters from five keystrokes:
However, in Japanese, many words have identical pronunciations. The Chinese characters (kanji) you use distinguish which meaning you intend. If you hit the space bar at this point, your PC will replace your characters with the most common match:

In this case though, that’s not what we want. This is also “k-a e r-u”, but means “to return”.

By hitting the space bar again, we can look through some more matches:
Unhelpfully for a learner, the definitions to the right are also in Japanese. Looking through the list, we want number 8. Arrowing down to that and hitting enter to select, we lock in “can buy”:

Congratulations, you now have a word! Now repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

Really, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t take long before even a rank amateur can grasp the rhythm of the input system. The trick, then, is knowing which kanji is the correct one. For this, life is made a lot easier using inline translation tools like Rikaichan (possibly one of the most useful pieces of free software ever).

The interesting side effect to all of this is that many Japanese people are reportedly forgetting how to write less-common kanji. Now that everyone can just input characters into their PC or mobile phone and then select the right character from a list, reading, rather than writing, becomes the far more useful daily skill. That sounds quite credible: I can say as a learner that being able to recognise a complex shape is one thing, but being able to reproduce the 13+ pen strokes that make it up is a completely different skill.

In fact, writing Japanese kanji is a skill that you might be able to safely neglect, saving a lot of study time. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself and fervently praying is true.