Japanese bread lines

Today was a blessed day off – though unfortunately, with my hand-me-down washing machine on the blink, a trip to the laundromat was in order.  It is my observation that laundromats are rarely as interesting as they are on sitcoms, with attractive members of the opposite sex flirtatiously folding their silky unmentionables in far less supply than advertised.

Still, while I waited for the spin cycle to complete, I thought I’d go for a bit of an explore in a new area.  I happened to stumble across a bakery.  While bakeries aren’t that rare in Japan, they’re not quite the institution they are elsewhere.

Japanese bakeries have a few key differences to Australian bakeries.  First, the biggest loaf you can buy is half-sized, though you can choose how thick the slices are:

The various products are displayed cafeteria style – for some reason, this holds true at every Japanese bakery I’ve been to.  Grab a tray and pair of tongs at the entrance, grab what you want and they’ll ring it up at the counter.  I was a little surprised at first, Japan being famous for its mask wearing and such, but it’s apparently not very big on the sneeze guards.

If you have very good eyes, you can see what they advertise as a “meat pie” in the top left hand corner of the picture below.  I was pretty excited at this discovery, having never found a decent meat pie in Japan before… and so it continued.  There was far more pastry than meat: though perhaps instead of meat, we should say “meat”.  Still, I appreciate the effort bakery people – I can understand you’re competing with a pretty low bar here.

Well, isn’t that just delightful?  These are designed to look like Doraemon, a very famous comic book character:

A pretty good piece of bread modeling, wouldn’t you say?

We have apricot danishes on the left, but on the right, we’ve got sweet potato danishes.  Sweet potato is used in lots of traditional sweets in Japan – my pick is sweet potato ice cream.

And another “character” shaped treat.  This fellow is from My Neighbor Totoro, an anime by the same studio that made Spirited Away, though Totoro is arguably far more famous in Japan.  I still haven’t seen it yet, which always causes gasps of disbelief when I’m forced to admit it to my co-workers.

Probably the most interesting of the lot,  “okonomiyaki bread”.  Like it’s hotplate fried sibling, it’s smothered in sauce, mayonnaise and bonito (tuna) flakes.  Not too bad at all for a little over $1, but I’d still go for the bigger version any time.

The best bit about this bakery was that as well as having plenty of original creations, my total bill for four items was $6.  Great value, perfect for a study lunch while waiting for one’s underthings to dry.


The numbers racket

I’ve been hammering away at Japanese for just on three years now.  I studied German in high school, but the two learning experiences don’t really compare at all.  In high school, you learn the set of words your teacher tells you, in the constructs they tell you, remembering them for one semester until you’ve finished the exam.  In a foreign country, you learn because you actually want to express yourself.

That’s simply said, but the desire to communicate on a peer level with others is incredibly powerful.  Take away one’s ability to effectively communicate, and you take away a large amount of their influence, power and confidence.  To truly communicate on a peer level, you need to be able to not only think and dream in that language, but have an intimate feel for the culture it represents.

The road to thinking in another language is of course, paved with the rote memorisation of many, many new words.  I’ve noticed there are several stages of learning a word:

  1. A new word glides by you many times without you even catching it.
  2. You finally decide that the word is finally interesting enough to pay attention to, having learning all the more important surrounding words.
  3. After you’ve tried to learn it, you see it again later, but forgot that you’ve even learned it.
  4. You see the word again and don’t know what it means, but you suspect you’ve seen it before.
  5. You see the word, and are sure you learned it before, but can’t remember what it means now.
  6. You see the word, know that you know it, and have to consciously struggle to remember what it means. “Something to do with… fish?”  You’re exasperated when someone finally tells you the meaning.  “Oh, of course!  Octopus!  I knew that!”
  7. You see the word and know it well, but still have an intermediate processing step of translating into your native language (“Ringo is… apple!“) or using a simplified meaning in your second language (‘That’s right, an “automobile” is a “car”‘).
  8. You see the word and can instantly grasp the concept it represents with no internal monologue.   A ringo is a ringo. This is where you want to be.

Repeat these eight steps around five thousand times, and congratulations, you’re somewhat fluent in a foreign language!

The terrible twos, teens, twenties, thousands…

Well, that all sounds like a neat and tidy way to learn, doesn’t it?  However, there’s one class of words that for some reason, refuses to yield to my eight simple steps.

It’s numbers.

But numbers are easy, right?  Chances are, you can still remember how to count to ten in whatever you learned back in school.  Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs…

Of course, most people learning Japanese for more than a week can do this too.  Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku.  But unlike some of my most frequently-used Japanese words that are at that eighth, effortless level now, numbers are still refusing to co-operate.   I still see a number in a Japanese context, have to say it to myself in English, process it, then translate it.  My numbers in Japanese are stuck between steps 6 and 7.  It’s something that’s baffled me for a long time, but I have some theories…

People write in arabic numerals in Japan

Words in Japanese (English loanwords too) are represented using completely different symbols (hiragana, katakana and kanji), so it’s easy to look at a word written in Japanese and think in Japanese.  The visual cues of the characters help you switch into Japanese mode.  As a level 8 word, you see the Japanese symbol for “car”, but you don’t think of the English word “car”, you just think of the concept.

However, while Japanese has long used Chinese-derived pictograms for numbers, like a lot of other languages they’ve adopted the Arabic numerals.  Numbers, being something deeply ingrained in us all since early childhood, seem to be locked into my head, immutable.  I see something that looks like a 9, and I cannot help but hear “nine” in my head, not “kyuu”.  I then must think “Oh, that’s 9, which is kyuu.”

This is particularly tragic when I have to tell someone my phone number.  Having made a little memorisation jingle in English, I have to repeat the song over and over in my head as I painstakingly translate each digit.

Strangely, this is only true of numbers as abstract values (for example, large sums of money or mathematics).  I’ve talked about how crazy the numbering system is in Japanese is before, with different type of objects having completely different counting words.  The concept of one person, for instance, has its own special word: hitori.  Since “one person” is a concept that’s easier to grasp than the abstract, mathematical concept of “one”, it turns out to be a lot easier to memorise at that effortless level 8.

Numbers are grouped differently in Japanese

In English, we group our numbers in thousands once they start to get big.  I’m sure you’re familiar with this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions.

We even reflect that in how we write our numbers: 1,000,000.

In Japan, numbers are grouped in ten thousands.  It looks like this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousand, tens of ten thousands, hundreds of ten thousands, thousands of ten thousands, billions.

Today, I happened to be dealing with an issue that had a number in the millions.  I thought it was quite impressive that we’d reached this figure.  “Wow, we’ve hit a million!”.  Speaking to my co-worker though, in Japanese I had to say “Wow, we’ve hit one hundred ten thousands!”.  It somehow took the shine off it.

The word million, I think, has a very special meaning in English.  It’s a gateway to numbers which are really big and difficult to imagine.  It also confers magical status; millionaires for instance.  “One hundred ten thousands” really makes it lose its zing.  I wonder if this affects the arbitrary goals people make for themselves?  “Hurrah, I’m a hundreds of ten thousands-aire!”

Faced with this unaccustomed grouping system, I have to sit there in a meeting and convert 234 410 to “Uh, Two hundred ten thousands, um, sorry, drop a zero… twenty three ten thousands, forty-four, sorry (again), four thousand, four hundred and, uh, ten?”.  I’m ashamed to say that yes, I sometimes count off zeros on my fingers.

So, I try to shoot for projects involving smaller numbers to avoid embarrassment.  For example, “How many of you would like coffee?”.


The yen has no sub-denomination like our cents.  There’s only units of yen.  One hundred yen is worth roughly one Australian dollar.  Accordingly, ten thousand yen is worth about $100.

When I went to an ATM for oh, the first year, and wanted to withdraw $200, I’d type in: 20000.  I’d sit there, looking at the number on the screen, daring myself to push the confirm button.  “Wait, that can’t be right… can it?  Am I about to empty my account?”.  My brain, used to thinking that 10000 is a number representing what you pay for a small car, still sometimes refuses to accept that in Japan, it’s merely a number to represent a very nice night on the town.  It’s difficult to fight that hard-wired programming of how a number equates to concrete values.

South American field trip!

There was a story doing the rounds a while back about an Amazonian tribe whose language and perception of quantity only deals with values up to five.  Anything above that is just “bigger than five”.  The numbers below five blur together too.  Three and four are really almost the same, aren’t they?  We do it too, of course.  One billion?  Ten billion?  They’re both just big, right?  We both have similar perception problems, just on different scales.

It’s amazing stuff really, when you consider that some of the most central pillars of how we understand the world turn out to be made of modeling clay rather than stone.  Numbers just happen to be one of those apparently fundamental concepts that’s more flexible than it might seem at first glance.  Still, that’s the fun of travel and language learning – finding out that those truths you held to be self-evident are evidently not so truthful after all.

Eat your whites

Perhaps you were not aware, but did you know people eat a lot of rice in Japan?  It’s true!  The smallest bag of rice I can buy at my local supermarket is 1 kg, ranging up to 10 kg bags.  Almost every meal from breakfast to dinner involves white rice of some description.  The really interesting thing for me is that while rice might be considered a side dish elsewhere, in Japan rice is often considered the main part of the dish, and the meat or vegetables a side dish.  In fact, the word for rice (gohan) can be used interchangeably as a word for “meal”.

Source: sweetmandarinchef.wordpress.com

A while ago I went with a good friend of mine visiting Japan (hope you had a good flight home!) to a traditional Japanese restaurant near the Edo Museum in Ryogoku.  The meal was delicious – grilled fish, sashimi, sweet beans, miso soup and rice.  At the time, I was experimenting with a low carb diet and so ate everything but the rice.

When the proprietor came over, a lovely, motherly women in her 50’s, she noticed my untouched rice.  “But you haven’t eaten your rice!” she said, shocked.  In Japan, this is not only seen as the equivalent of not eating your vegetables, but it’s also quite rude.  Going to lunch with my co-workers, they will generally eat rice to the very last grain, leaving a perfectly clean bowl.

Still, rude or not, the low carb diet seemed to be having positive effects on my energy levels.  A rude, energetic me seemed like the preferable option to a sluggish, polite me.

Not wanting to get into much depth, I just told her I had an allergy to rice.  “Oh,” she said, “but that’s terrible!  I’ll be right back.”

In under a minute she was back with two plates of chiffon cake.  “Please, this is free!  I don’t want to see you starve.”  After everything else we’d just eaten, I didn’t see how that was possible, but still!  Although the cake also violated my low carb diet, there was no way I was going to refuse such a kind, thoughtful offer.  Plus, who can say no to free cake?

Although the service in Japan is generally of a spectacular level, this was definitely a case that will stand out in my memory for quite some time.  If you happen to be in Tokyo and get along to the Edo Museum or the National Sumo Stadium, let me direct you to this lovely little restaurant – you won’t be disappointed.

I got lost but I have an excuse

Once a week, I go to Japanese school for a two hour evening lesson. Recently, my school informed me that they were consolidating their two schools into one single building, not far from where the old one was.  They gave me a map.

In theory, finding the new location should have been pretty easy.  However, what you’ve forgotten, as always, is the Japanese street addressing system.

The Japanese street addressing system

Firstly, Tokyo is a city that organically, chaotically formed.  There’s not much zoning. A hairdresser may be below an English school, which is below an apartment.  There’s nothing regular about the street layout in many places, with hidden lanes and streets at jaunty angles everywhere.

Secondly, the street number system is entirely logical or entirely illogical, depending on how you look at it.  Apart from arterial roads, most streets don’t have names.  An address will be the suburb plus a number, for example “Shinkuku 8-1-4”.  Shinjuku is the suburb, where the 8-1-4 means district 8, block 1, building 4.  Buildings aren’t numbered according to street position but build age (the oldest building is number 1 etc).  So, good luck guessing which building is the fifth oldest on the block.

For computers, this is fine.  For humans – not so much, especially as you really can’t rely on these numbers appearing anywhere in the physical world to tell you where you are.  There are sometimes vague maps on a signboard, but very few street signs.

So, how do you find a place you want to go to in Japan?  You either print out a map beforehand, look it up on your cellphone (online navigation has been popular for much longer in Japan than other places) or get verbal directions.  “Get off at Shinjuku station and you’ll see a department store.  Walk through it and leave from exit number five.  You’ll see a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn left there and it’s the building three doors down with a carpark out the front.”

Not many people own cars in Tokyo, but the train system is fantastic.  So, the normal procedure is for the person who knows where they’re going to meet everyone at the train station and lead the way.

Back to school

In the case of my school, they provided a mud map to the new location.  It was something along the lines of “Go down a street with lots of bars until you hit a Family Mart convenience store.  Turn right until you cross a bridge.  Take a left and a right and you’ll see the school’s sign.”  Although the school has a street address, people tend not to use it.  At least the street with lots of bars should be easy to spot:

Unfortunately, on the first day I was to attend the new school, I couldn’t find the map.  “I know, I’ll go to  their web site and print one off!”.  Unfortunately, the web site hadn’t been updated, and led to the school’s old location which I also hadn’t visited.

Even more unfortunately, the old site involved going down another street with lots of bars, past a Family Mart (they’re everywhere), across a bridge… to the middle of nowhere.  I called the school.

“Hi, I followed the directions on the map, but I’m obviously not there.”
“Oh, where are you?”
“I’m standing in front of a Bic Camera store.”
“There’s a Bic Camera store in Takadanobaba??”

This is when I knew things had gone badly.

Continuing to try and follow the outdated map, I eventually found the school – locked up with all the lights out.  Another phone call.  “Excuse me, do you happen to all be sitting in the dark with the doors locked?”

I retraced my steps back to the station where a nice lady from the school had kindly offered to meet me.  I was shamefacedly escorted to school only one hour late for my two hour lesson.

Consolation prize: the street leading up to the school’s new venue is full of students on the turps having a great time.  It’s a really lively place compared to the previous, more sterile, corporate area.  Here’s the experience of walking along the drag down to my school, full of bars, hostess clubs, mobile phone shops and convenience stores:

The press of the rush

More fooling around with my new camera acquisition, this time filming a typical evening rush hour commute between two Tokyo subway stations. Things to watch out for:

  • People gripping the door frame to jam themselves into the carriage;
  • Me pressed up against the door from the weight of people behind me;
  • Two hundred people crammed into the carriage, but everyone is virtually silent the whole time, with nary a sneeze;
  • The guy wearing a mask behind me, who notices my casual attempt to aim the camera over my shoulder;
  • The rows upon rows of apartment buildings and convenience stores lit up.

In related news, turns out the RRP of the TX7 in Australia is double what I paid at Amazon Japan!  If you use the exchange rate from a year ago, sure, but the Aussie dollar has been climbing ever upwards towards parity with the yen of late.  Sony Australia says they’re out of stock, so it seems even they don’t expect to sell any at that price.

Here comes a new challenger

New technology time!  My favourite time, really.

For documenting my time in Japan, my camera is something I carry with me all over the place.  I still use my Sony A300 DSLR regularly, but there’s one problem: it’s a heavy, obtrusive camera.  I feel the need to cart a wide angle and telephoto lens everywhere I go, and feel self-conscious touting it around stores looking for hilariously misspelled English to take photos of.  Additionally, some things like festivals can’t be completely captured as a still frame, so the addition of moving pictures (which I’ve coined the phrase “mopics” for) would be more than handy.

Yes, there are camera phones, but the image quality and response time always feels sub-par.  The other downside of phone cameras in Japan is that as an anti-pervert measure (by law?) the shutter noise cannot be turned off.  This is apparently a regional change to the Japanese version of the iPhone too.  Needless to say, although my objectives are pure (honest!), you don’t always want to break the dead silence of a packed train carriage with the tell-tale shutter noise.  Cameras without a phone feature, strangely, do not appear to be subject to this ruling, and can be run silently.  So, I decided it was time to take the plunge and look at the compact camera market.

After a bit of asking around, I ended up with Sony’s very slick new TX7, which I’m extremely happy with after three days of extensive use.  For around AUD $350 via Amazon Japan, not only does it include a wide range of impressive still shot features, but also the ability to do HD 1920×1080@60i movies!  These look absolutely gorgeous on the TX7’s 3.5 inch touchscreen – running eerily smoothly, they almost look hyper-real.

The sad part is that my three year-old laptop lacks the horsepower to display high quality movies smoothly.  So, I’m reduced to viewing them on the camera itself or converting them to a lesser format.

The video functions seem to perform very well in low light, too.  Although I don’t know if this clip runs in 60i on YouTube, try cranking the quality up to 1080p and tell me how it looks.  Unfortunately, my machine can only handle up to 720p.

The camera itself is slightly larger than a credit card, and 1.7cm thick.  It’s easily pocket-able along with my mobile phone, and easy to grab when the occasion demands.  So finally, I have a “go everywhere” camera I can use without diving into my backpack to grab my SLR.

You may also be surprised to find out that this camera can even take photos!  As well as taking a fairly decent shot for a compact camera, it’s got a couple of new modes I was pleasantly surprised at.  The first is a panorama (a.k.a. stitch) mode.  Stitching photos together is nothing new, but the joy of this camera is that it does all the processing inside the phone almost instantly.  Select a direction to pan the camera, press the shutter button, start smoothly swinging the camera around – a handy gauge tracks how fast you’re moving the camera and how much room you have left in your arc – and the stitched image appears almost instantaneously.

When I was a boy, why, we had to stitch our photos together in the snow!  With no shoes on!  Uphill!  It built character, I say.

But this is way easier.

The other feature of note is a HDR mode, processed in-camera.  HDR is the process of taking three separate shots of the same scene at different exposures, then later combining the shots together to try to “correct” the problems of under and overexposure in parts of a scene with varied lighting.  Usually, I have to do this manually via software, but the TX7 does it quickly and automatically, all in-camera.  The results don’t give you nearly as much control as a program like Photomatrix, but for the minimal effort required, it works a treat.

Anyway, that’s the quick introduction to the new member of the blog.  It really is amazing to me that they stuffed so many features into such a small box.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put it to good use soon to show some aspects of Japan I haven’t been able to until now.