Kana Kanban


How do you say ‘festival’ in Japanese? If you’re learning hiragana, try reading this poster advertising an upcoming event.  I noticed it on a community message board in my neighborhood in Kyoto.  The お at the beginning is an honorific and is often omitted.

Use the rikaichan popup dictionary or your favorite reference tool with my transcription below the photo if you need help.

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Conspicuous consumption: Eco vending machines in Japan

LED照明点炉中 LED照明を使用しています。

Use the rikaichan popup dictionary on the text I’ve transcribed just below the photo if you need help reading the sticker on this vending machine.

I took this shot because I’m interested in the ways that vending machines are promoting their latest energy saving features in this era of reduced power generating capacity, when 節電(せつでん), electricity conservation,  is suddenly closer to an imperative than a lifestyle choice.

When I uploaded it I was surprised to see a familiar word used in a way I hadn’t seen before!  消費税(しょうひぜい),  consumption tax, is a word that’s everywhere these days, with the proposed increase in the consumption (sales) tax from 5% to 10% a very hot political potato. 消費者(しょうひしゃ)is a consumer.

When I read this sticker,  I understood that it refers to power consumption, and was happy  to discover a new usage.  I was also a bit intrigued by the order that the kanji are in, with 消費 coming before電力(でんりょく),the opposite of what I would’ve expected.  I can imagine using the phrase ‘消費電力が少ない to talk about energy related issues, or maybe when I go to an appliance shop to buy something.


The Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association has a spiffy, recently overhauled website that greets you with a bit of animation that depicts an idyllic countryside scene with rolling hills, frolicking kiddies with butterfly nets, smiling adults and yes, vending machines, that makes it worth at least quick visit to get a sense of how far public opinion and buying habits still allow them to go.

If you like to get a little authentic reading practice in now and then, you might enjoy exploring the site a bit more with a popup dictionary like rikaichan to help keep your flow going.

My interest in language aside, I can’t help but marvel at how the makers of these machines have managed to position themselves as part of an environmentally friendly vanguard in Japan,  selling the notion of ‘eco’ or environmentally friendly vending machines, a term which to my ears at least, is an oxymoron.  The JVMMA website was revamped with this focus in mind, it seems.

It’s one thing to tout energy efficiency for an appliance that has some reasonable level of utility. But when vending machines are as ubiquitous as they are here(Japan has the most vending machines per capita in the world according to their website) and often are just a stone’s throw from a just as common convenience store,   I have to wonder why more people don’t see them as simply unnecessary and a waste of resources in this new era of tough choices and decide to stop feeding them, to stop voting for them with their coin shaped ballots.
Some folks promote carrying your own thermos, etc. as a way to reduce the use of cans and plastic bottles as well as conserve electricity,  and the number of people who do that is likely growing.  But for the vast number of people who don’t,  convenience stores and other markets would seem like a convenient enough option in most cases,  even if it means passing up a vending machine and waiting an extra two minutes or so until you come upon one.

In the spirit of saving energy, namely our own as language learners, I’ve included the picture below.  Can you think of two ways,  standard and abbreviated, to say ‘vending machine’ in Japanese? This weather worn Kyoto shop sign has the compact, energy saving version of the word written on it.   Give it a go and meet me under the photo!



We all have memories of certain words that give us fits when we’re first learning Japanese, and even after we get some study time under our belts.  I remember ‘vending machine,’ 自動販売機 (じどうはんばいき), was a real mouthful for me to say at first, especially before I understood what the components meant, what the kanji stood for.  At some point I picked up the shortened version that’s in the sign above, じはんき。At this ‘vending machine corner’ you’ll find a cigarette machine, among others, according to the vertical sign below it.

And here’s an old sign I saw attached to a beautiful old wooden building in Kyoto with the longer version…….

What words that seemed hard to remember and use because of their length and unfamiliar sounds stand out in your mind from the early days of your studies?  Do you know any other energy saving abbreviated forms of words?

Originally posted 2012-08-10 07:51:36.

What kind of clouds did you see today?

In early July, just before the end of the rainy season,  I went to Biwako (Lake Biwa), the largest fresh water lake in Japan, and was struck by some cloud formations on that hot, humid afternoon.  My friend Mr. Ikeda told me that the cloud I was admiring has a name,  入道雲.

It’s a towering type of cloud formation associated with summer,  imposing in the way a bodybuilder might be, muscle bound and commanding attention.  Even with these attributes,  I probably only noticed the にゅうどうぐも and pointed them out because I was at a lakeside BBQ party and was taking the time to just relax and chat and breath in new surroundings.

Mr. Ikeda taught me the word’s kanji as we gazed at the sky, which, as is so often the case, really helped me to set the word in my mind. And after I got home, my dictionary informed me that 入道 can refer to a bald-headed monster.  This is not a cloud that’s used to being ignored!

Then, just a couple days later, as I strolled by a gallery exhibition on my way to do some shopping, I noticed a painting through the glass and there was ‘my’  cloud!

I walked in and admired various scenes of small town life.  Mr. Aikawa, the man behind the paintings, happened to be there and I told him about my new friend the 入道雲, and how we were introduced just days before and here, by chance, I’d just noticed  those columns of clouds again his warm, nostalgic work.

If I hadn’t taken the time to see the clouds and comment on them at Biwako, I wouldn’t have even suspected they had a name other than their scientific term.  And in turn, if I hadn’t known that name, I wouldn’t have taken the time to take that refreshing detour and enter the world of Mr. Aikawa’s work and be afforded a glimpse of what his childhood in the castle town of Hikone outside of Kyoto must have been like.

This was my second introduction to a cloud. Late last year a yoga lesson mate spontaneously pointed to the sky out the window as we stretched and chatted before class and told me that we were looking at an 鰯雲, a sardine cloud.  If the 入道雲 is the musclebound, imposing type,  the いわしぐも might be his skinny kid brother.  Named for their resemblance to a fish’s scales,  they’re fixtures in the fall sky.

Japanese people  seem surprised when I tell them that I don’t know what to call various cloud formations in English.  There are scientific names, of course, and I came across the term ‘thunder cloud’ when I looked this topic up in writing this post, but I’d never heard it myself.  Japanese people seem to take for granted the  widely known, richly descriptive language they’ve inherited that’s attached to so many natural phenomena.

As so often happens when I learn a new Japanese word,  my eyes are opened to something that was there all the time, that I didn’t notice or know what to call in either Japanese or English in many cases.  Living in Japan gives me ample chances to use the  language that I learn, and time spent studying has obvious practical payoffs.  Beyond that though, instances like this remind me of what a wonderful lens to see the world through my studies have become.

You can find more of Mr. Aikawa’s work at his website, in Japanese.   The rikaichan popup dictionary can be of help if you’re interested in reading some of the content.

And while I’ve got my head in the clouds, I’m reminded of a thought provoking, engaging article written by William Reed that uses the sky to pose some interesting questions that you can find here. It includes thoughts on the kanji character 空(くう) and its various levels of meaning in relation to Buddhist thought and Japanese culture.  Mr. Reed’s columns are a great resource for those who have an interest in Japan, whether you’re studying the language or not.

I’m curious about what other words there are to describe clouds in English and Japanese.  Do you know of any?

Originally posted 2012-08-08 08:45:28.

Brother, can you spare a…………

合鍵 金物 スペアキー

Use the rikaichan popup dictionary on the text I’ve transcribed just below the photo if you need help reading the sign.
I liked the look of this quaint old sign in front of a small shop in Kyoto that might not even be in business anymore.  I hadn’t realized that the katakana version of ‘spare key’ was Japanese,  so I snapped the photo.

Then, when I used the rikaichan popup dictionary just now as I transcribed the words on it,  I confirmed the reading あいかぎ,  as I had never really been sure about how to pronounce that.  That’s the Japanese word for ‘spare key.’

And though I go to hardware stores now and then, I didn’t know what to call one in Japanese!  the answer is also on this sign.

I’ve seen the characters 金物 and understand that it refers to ‘metal things’ or hardware. But there are various common ways to pronounce these two characters and I’d never been sure about how to read them together. Now I know that if I’m looking for a place to get a key made, I should ask where the nearest かなものやさん is.

It so happens that I need a spare key made, and have been procrastinating about it.  Maybe this will nudge me to get it,  just to have the chance to use these new words before I forget them! I wonder if Mr. Okada is still plying his trade.


Originally posted 2012-08-04 07:20:34.

Even monkeys fall from trees, especially this one!

サルスベリ 猿も木から落ちる 滑る

Use the rikaichan popup dictionary if you need help reading the words transcribed above.  They include a tree’s name,  a proverb, and a verb.

Your studious friend has just failed an exam, a first.  You console her by saying 猿も木から落ちる!Even monkeys fall from trees.  Nobody’s perfect.  I was reminded of this common expression when I went to Kyoto’s Botanical Garden and saw a サルスベリ tree.

I can never resist touching these trees,  but their smoothness must make it hard for even monkeys to keep their grip!  Hence the whimsical name, which combines the words for ‘monkey’ and ‘slide’.  These are known as Crape Myrtle in English.

さるもきからおちる! Is one of the most often heard  Japanese proverbs that use animal imagery.  What others come to your mind?

Originally posted 2012-08-01 14:12:18.

How do you say ‘casual’ in Japanese? You just did!


Use the rikaichan popup dictionary on the text I’ve transcribed just below the photos if you need help reading the sign.

Mr. Young Men wants you to know that they’re a casual okonomiyaki place,  in case that’s not already apparent from looking at the storefront. It’s in the Shinkyogoku  shopping arcade just north of Shijo Dori in Kyoto.

The sign made me realize just how Japanese the word ‘casual’ has become.  A friend sometimes uses it with me when we’re speaking Japanese,  as in when he asks if I’m free for dinner and adds that it’s casual. That’s when I know we’ll be going to our favorite cheap standing bar  or something like that.

He doesn’t speak much English at all but I’d  thought that maybe he’d somehow picked that word up and enjoys breaking it out when he talks with me.  When I saw this sign, I understood that it’s  commonly used these days among Japanese, and he isn’t using it with  me just because I’m a native English speaker.

Of course you need to put a bit of a different spin on the pronunciation, but loan words like this are a great way to beef up vocabulary.  I knew that ‘formal’ had entered the Japanese language, so this usage doesn’t really surprise me.  I use カジュアル in conversation once in a while and people seem to understand it, but I suppose I felt like somehow it was cheating, that there’s a more accepted Japanese term in wider use that I should know.

I wrote a post recently that included ‘creative’ as a なadjective in Japanese,  and I’ve been wondering lately about other words, adjectives especially, that are borrowed from English that I could be adding to my Japanese language arsenal, knowing that this list is ever expanding.

Speaking of adjectives, a great way to get some exposure to lots of natural, descriptive language in manageable chunks is to check out restaurant review sites in Japanese.  Rikaichan comes in very handy here.  To get a taste of this kind of authentic content, check out a review of Mr. Young Men on this very popular restaurant review site,  and use rikaichan if you need help with it.  Sites like this that feature lots of candid, colorful, descriptive comments from site users are a great way to spice up your studies!

Have you discovered any loan words  lately that have added to your Japanese fluency?

Originally posted 2012-08-01 09:00:02.

Wanted: Creative nurses!

看護師募集 看護師の心を大切にしたい 私達と一緒に実践しませんか  クリエイテイブな看護

Use the rikaichan popup dictionary on the text I’ve transcribed just below the photo if you need help reading this recruiting poster for nurses at a Kyoto hospital.

This poster first struck me visually, with its use of a traditional building as a backdrop, outdoors with smiling faces under a beautiful sky instead of the more typical austere hospital setting.  Then I noticed that the message that it’s striving to convey defied my expectations to at least the same extent.

Over the years many of my English students have been nurses in Kyoto and they’ve always talked about how physically and emotionally demanding the work is, with irregular hours that include graveyard shifts, the stress of bearing so much responsibility,  and a lack of discretionary power.

This poster seems to be a response to that reputation,  and is a great example of an English adjective that has become part of the Japanese language recently and takes the な form.  Its use seems to emphasize the hospital’s focus on a break from old standards and expectations,  in giving nurses more say in the way things are done, and to feel more valued and appreciated as partners in the process, not just passive, obedient workers at the hospital’s disposal.   Using ‘creative’ instead the Japanese equivalent highlights the break from tradition in a powerful way.

This ‘creative’ approach can only help with recruitment, I would think.  I’m curious about how it’s implemented.

Speaking of evolving language and attitudes,  my Japanese teacher corrected me recently when I used the word 看護婦 instead of the newer form 看護師 for ‘nurse.’  Seems that かんごふ  isn’t an up to date term and かんごし has replaced it, as in this poster.  Am I showing my age!?

Can you think of any other words In Japanese that  been replaced by new forms?  What words or kanji characters in the poster were new to you?

Originally posted 2012-07-31 02:51:42.


Rikaichan is a popup dictionary.  If I had to give up all but one of my printed and online Japanese learning resources, rikaichan would be the keeper. And it happens to be free!  You can download it and get more info here.

One of the joys of living in Kyoto is that I get to indulge my love of learning kanji all the time,  by just looking at the signs that surround me in my daily life.  I’d like to give you a sense of that feeling, that satisfaction that comes from reading authentic Japanese, in fun, short bursts.

 The photo below is of a used bicycle shop’s sign in my neighborhood.  An obvious limitation of rikaichan’s is that you can’t simply hover your browser on kanji in a photo, because it’s not directly transmitted text on your screen, and can’t be recognized.  In the same way, rikaichan won’t be of use with scanned documents.

With this in mind, I transcribe what’s written on signs, etc, so that you can use rikaichan at your own discretion. And while you don’t need to enable rikaichan to enjoy and learn from the posts,  using it with the characters  I transcribe just below photos as I have below will allow you to actively interact with the topics, which in itself is a key to retention and motivation.

Try to read the signs in the photos in this blog without any help, and see how far you get with that.  Use your rikaichan on the text I transcribe below the photos to help with unfamiliar readings and meanings.  In the photo  just below, I hovered over the second part of the sign that’s visible in this pic, and rikaichan has identified the word and given the details.  If you want to see more detail about the individual characters, just gradually move your mouse to the right.

I see the same characters and appeals again and again,  and this varied repetition of dynamic content makes for natural, engaging reinforcement. It can also be more than a little overwhelming at times!  From the countless messages that surround me, I’ll choose subjects that offer the chance to see common characters and words in succinct, visually appealing ways,   and you’ll find yourself relying less on rikaichan and more on your own ability as you go along.  Give it a try!

Rikaichan has changed the way I study Japanese, in that it enables me to read articles and other authentic Japanese text online that otherwise would be over my head.  I’ve been able to develop my own study routine, using it only when I am really stuck, and focusing on retaining the information it gives me about definitions and kanji readings.

In addition to writing the characters that appear in signs in photos, I will sometimes include Japanese words in my posts without  adding  hiragana after the kanji, to allow you to decode them for yourself or with the help of rikaichan or your favorite reference tool as you see fit.

As I got into the habit of using rikaichan to help me decipher things online, I started going to my tool bar to enable it as a matter of routine whenever I turn on my computer.  It’s invaluable for a variety of text from emails from Japanese friends, to online articles.

The photo just below is typical of how I use it most of the time, to help me read newspaper articles online.  Click on the photo to see an enlarged version and to view the characters clearly.

In this case,  I couldn’t read a word in the headline, ふくさよう that I use in conversation.  I hadn’t seen it written before, and I was surprised to realize that what seemed at first glance to be a totally unfamiliar word is actually one that I know the meaning of and recognize when I hear it.  I also know the readings of the three kanji that comprise it,  so as it turns out,  a quick rikaichan check is enough for me to recognize it on my own in the future, and efficiently build on my knowledge base.

Once you install rikaichan, all you have to do is enable it when you turn on your computer and hover your mouse over the characters you want readings and/or definitions for.  If you hover over the first character of a word, you’ll get the reading and definition for the word, not just the reading for the individual character.  This is really a big part of what makes it so valuable for me.

In  certain situations you might not be especially focused on retaining what rikaichan shows you, such as when you get an email in Japanese and need to fill in some gaps in your knowledge and understand it. In a case like this you can use it without much thought, and let it help you to rapidly understand the material in the moment.

But when improving your reading skills is your main goal, it’s worth developing a learning strategy as you go along that caters to your level and learning style.  This will help you to improve more quickly, and it will also keep you motivated by giving you a real feeling of satisfaction that comes from stretching yourself and seeing noticeable improvement in your ability to read and understand more and more characters, and do it with greater speed as you go along.

Rikai also has an optional toolbar that lets you manually type in a word you want to look up, as you’ll see in the screenshot below.  Click on it to see it in detail.  Here I entered the Japanese term for ‘cold war’ in kanji to get a deeper understanding of the characters’ components.

I use this as a handy dictionary when I want to clarify the meaning of a word I recently heard in conversation, etc.   I also use it along with the popup dictionary feature as an occasional supplement when I want to get more detailed info on the kanji that make up a word.  It also has the number of the character given in various dictionaries and kanji learning systems, so you can easily use online readings to reinforce what you’ve been exposed to in those texts.  It really helps to bring your studies alive.

I used to study kanji using James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji I and II and I bought a set of compatible flash cards that I used a lot.  You can buy a set like I did, but if you have a printer, rikaichan can be of service there as well, as it offers printable cards on PDF.

I’ve donated to the rikaichan project through the handy button on their site because I’ve gotten so much benefit from it, and I’m betting that if you add this great resource to your arsenal of study aids and take the time to try it out with different texts in various ways,   you’ll quickly discover how to adapt it to your level and learning style.

Let me know if you have any suggestions for written content that you’d like to see here with transcriptions, and please pass along your own tips on how to get the most out of rikaichan!

Originally posted 2012-07-29 11:30:56.

Heaven’s River: The Milky Way and the Tanabata Star Festival

I just got a second coffee and a blueberry scone and commented to the Starbuck’s staffer that I was glad the rain had stopped. 雨やんでよかった!She reminded me that it’s especially good news because today’s Tanabata, the Star Festival.

Then she said ‘Milky Way’ in English,  and I remembered that according to the legend,  two deities represented by stars are separated by the Milky Way, and can only meet on Tanabata night.

I wanted to know how to say ‘Milky Way’ in Japanese and asked her.  Heavenly River! 天の川(あまのがわ).  I should be able to remember it it this time.  The trick will be to remember this reading of 天. Another example that comes to mind is 天下り(あまくだり, descent from heaven.  A colorful expression for the common but increasingly frowned upon practice of giving high level bureaucrats cushy private sector jobs when they retire.  What we might call a golden parachute in English.

Because of the similar sound, I think of the word for sweet, 甘い when I see this reading of 天,  and then I think of that sweetest of candy bars, Milky Way,  and I find a new way to remember how to read this heavenly kanji combination.

あまのがわ、あまくだり。。。。Have you come across of any other examples of this reading for the character 天 in conversation or readings?

Originally posted 2012-07-07 02:38:53.

The sand dunes of Tottori

photo by geofrog, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

I was talking with my friend Yutaka the other night, sitting at the counter of my favorite bar listening to some tunes by The Who from their BBC sessions LP.  He just took a trip to Tottori Prefecture, and though I’ve never been to 鳥取県,  I’ve heard about the sand dunes and camels.  The first time I saw pictures I had a hard time believing it was Japan!

I couldn’t say the word for ‘dunes’ even though I’ve heard it before when that area has come up in conversation.  This time I made a point of asking him how to say it, and took the time to see what the word’s components are.  As is so often the case when I do this, I learn a lot and discover some unexpected connections, and easy ways to anchor my new knowledge to things I already know on some level.

砂丘(さきゅう)means dune in Japanese.  The first character means sand, すな。When my friend told me this much, my eyes lit up as I realized that it’s the same reading as in 黄砂(こうさ)。黄砂 might well not be familiar to you if you don’t live in Japan or neighboring countries, but based on the information in this paragraph, you might be able to understand and pronounce it.  Hint: the first character is the kanji for a primary color.

Could you get the color and maybe the reading, too?

黄砂 literally means ‘yellow sand.’  It makes its way to Japan and neighboring countries from China via high winds and makes a nuisance of itself by causing allergy-like symptoms like sore throats and doing damage to car finishes, etc.  The word comes up in conversation here  when strong winds pick up.  As desertification has spread in China, the amount of yellow sand has increased.

The word for dune, 砂丘 uses this same reading.  My friend added that the second syllable means hill, or おか。so dune is literally ‘sand hill.’  When I started writing this post, I got a surprise, though. I’d expected 岡 to pop up when I wrote the word in hiragana, because I’m familiar with that kanji for ‘hill’ from last names like 岡本、and places like 岡島. This  kanji has eluded me to this point, but 丘 is on my radar screen now.

A third example of this reading of the kanji for sand is the one I’d overlooked when I started writing this post, and I only realized it because my Japanese teacher pointed it out when I shared the draft with her. 砂糖!Sugar.  I’d totally overlooked this reading because I’ve come to see that word as a unit that means sugar, and hadn’t examined the kanji individually for years.

If you don’t have this reading for 砂 committed to memory yet,  you might use its English meaning, ‘sand’ as a mnemonic device to help you lock it in.  Think of the first two letters of ‘SAnd’ and you’ll never forget the さ in the words above!

Funny how as my kanji knowledge grows,  the most familiar old characters and words like 砂糖 offer up new discoveries.

One of these days I’ll get to the dunes of Tottori!  Have you been there?

Originally posted 2012-07-04 12:19:21.