Sunday, 19 October 2014

Beginners Japanese Grammar 2

Hello everyone! A little announcement as I've just made my Japanese Grammar 2 course on Memrise public! 

This is the second of a series of grammar courses for beginners, covering all the grammar points (except particles) for JLPT N4 level of Japanese. Even if you're not taking any of the Japanese language proficiency tests you can still use this course to learn Japanese grammar. The lessons are grouped together based on how the grammar is formed and assumes that you already know how to read kana and how to make stem, plain, て form, た form, ない form etc. If you don't or are a bit rusty it might be good to go over part 1: Beginners Japanese Grammar 1 (JLPT N5). Any new grammar forms that pop up will have explanations before them.
This course also tests you with kanji to English meaning. It uses kanji you should know for JLPT N4 but if you need to brush up here is the JLPT N4 Kanji course: JLPT N4 Kanji

JLPT N4 Grammar

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Japan Hacks - History Nerds in Japan

If you are a bit of a Japanese history fan there are a LOT of places in Japan you should go visit. Some of these might be obvious ones, and others probably not so much.

The following list is based on the most popular tourist destinations: Tokyo and Kyoto. I wish I could list all the amazing places in Japan based on historic events and people but I don't know them all. These are just the locations myself and friends visited on our last trip. If you know of any others please leave a comment so that other people might learn from your wisdom.


Sengakuji (Temple) - This is a small temple right next to Sengakuji Station. This is where the 47 Ronin were buried.

Zojoji (Temple) - Just down the road from Sengakuji and near Tokyo Tower, Zojoji is where 6 out of the 15 Tokugawa shoguns were buried. It's also famous for its large amount of Jizo statues, which people go to to pray for the souls of dead children.

Yasakuni Shrine - Famous for being controversial, this shrine is a really interesting to see because of it's history enshrining the souls of people who have died in battle. Some of these souls may have been convicted of war crimes (hence the controversy), but most people go to pray for their own ancestors who died in battle. It also has a war museum.

Meiji Jingu - This is a really interesting shrine, not only because of it's giant tori, interesting architecture, and giant sacred trees, but because it's the shrine of Emporer Meiji and Empress Shoken. They were enshrined here before WWII when, in Japan, the emperors of were still considered to be descendants of the goddess Amaterasu. After WWII the royal family denounced their god-hood and no more shrines were erected to worship them.

Edo Tokyo Museum - Great for a general history of Japan and Japanese life in the Edo period (1603-1868) and after into the Meiji and Showa (modern day) times.


Honno-ji - Honnō-ji is most famous for the Honno-ji IncidentOda Nobunaga lodged there before his invasion of the west, but on the morning of June 21, 1582, Akechi Mitsuhide betrayed him, surrounded the temple and set it on fire. Knowing there was no way out for him, Nobunaga committed seppuku along with his attendant Mori Ranmaru

Nijo Castle - A 20min walk from Honno-ji, Nijo Castle is the palace the Tokugawa shoguns lived in during their rule when Kyoto was the capital. It's the most beautiful castle I've seen in Japan with wonderful wall art and a nightingale floor that dates back to 1601 when Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered it be built.

Mibu-dera - Just south of Nijo Castle (another 20-30min walk) is Mibudera where some of the Shinsengumi are buried.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Japan Hacks - What to do if you're sick in Japan

I previously did a post on being sick in Japan but that covered the differences between being sick in the West vs Japan, and phrases to use to get help if you know Japanese. This post is about when you're in Japan on HOLIDAY and you get sick, you don't know the language or what to do!

This happened to me on my most recent trip. A combination of jet-lag, only a few hours sleep in 48hours and unhealthy food almost took me out with a cold. Luckily I was able to get amazing Japanese cold medicine and it fixed it right up. (I had some comments from American friends that Japanese cold medicine doesn't work for them. I suggest trying it anyway if you're on holiday and are stuck).

This guide focuses mostly on if you have a cold and want to keep sightseeing rather than lying in bed for 3 days and missing Japan.

Things to do if you're suddenly sick in Japan:

Drug store - noticeable by the giant red 薬 on the side
  • Get help from local staff:
    If you are in a hotel there will probably be at least one staff member who speaks English. Go to the front desk and see if the will help you by going to a nearby pharmacy and acting as translator. They might not be allowed to leave work but Japanese guest services are amazing and they will do all they can to help. (This is easier in a big city, if you're in a small town there probably won't be any English speakers around).
  • Go to a pharmacy (not the hospital):
    If you ask a Japanese person for help they might want to take you to hospital. If you just have a cold then it's not worth going and wasting your holiday hours sitting around a hospital where you can't speak the language and you'll have to spend a lot of your spending money on hospital bills. (If it's a serious illness that's not a cold then go to the hospital!) Local drug stores (notable by the large bottles of soap they sell) will have someone there who can recommend the best medicine based on your symptoms. Have a friend or hospital translate for you, or you can try and get by with good old hand gestures.
  • Feed a cold, starve a fever:
    This is a saying my mum passed down to me and I always swear by it. If you have a cold in Japan and you want to keep sightseeing and not be stuck indoors all day then you need to keep yourself hydrated and fed. The best things to do this in Japan is to keep snacks like Calorie Mates (which have added vitamins) and drink drinks like Pocari Sweat (which re-ionises your body). Some people say drink CC Lemon which has added vitamin C but I found Pocari works SO much better and CC Lemon has a lot of sugar in it which you should avoid. Try and snack every hour, drink whenever you eat, and make sure you have your regular meals ontop.
Obviously if you have something worse than a cold it's good to use common sense. If it's food poisoning then eat little bit of dry food (Calorie Mate is good for this again) and keep hydrated (Pocari Sweat). If it's something worse (i.e stomach pains) then get to the hospital by asking the hotel staff for help (even if they can't speak English they'll understand the situation and know what to do).

Useful phrases if you can't get hold of someone who speaks English. I've added the Japanese underneath so if you're in a bind you can print them off or show them on your phone (you might not be able to get wi-fi in Japan so save it to the phone itself just in case).

Where is the pharmacy? = yakyoku wa doko desu ka?

I can't speak Japanese. = nihongo ga dekimasen.

Can you speak English? = eigo ga dekimasu ka?

I have a cold = kaze desu.

My head hurts = atama ga itai desu.

My muscles hurt = kinkotsu ga itai desu.

I have a soar throat = nodo ga itai desu.

My glands are swollen = rin ga mukunde-imasu.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Japan Hacks - Snacking in Japan

When sight-seeing in Japan you might find yourself walking A LOT and so it's very important to keep yourself hydrated and sufficiently fuelled for the day. You might think that you can just go to any restaurant or shop when you're hungry but what I found was that often there aren't always resturants or cafes where you're going, and if the place you're going to is particularly touristy you might not be able to get a seat right away (especially if you're with lots of people).

This post is about rationing food and the best things to eat from convenience stores when out and about in Japan.

If you'd like a look at Japanese restaurants see this post: Restaurants in Japan 

First of all it's good to know where the nearest convenience store or super market is to your hotel/hostel. Often breakfast won't get served at the place you're staying so you'll need to plan your breakfasts in advance. This is particularly important if you're going to be spending the day sightseeing. So once you locate your nearest convenience store it's good to stock up on some food for breakfast and to carry around with you for lunch.

This is what the top 3 convenience stores in Japan (konbin) look like:

konbini family mart

konbini 7 eleven
For people who live in the USA: Japanese 7 Elevens are very safe and very good!

konbini lawson

What can I eat? I don't understand the moon-runes!

In terms of costs food from a convenience store can range from 100yen ($1) for a roll or rice ball to about 600yen ($6) for a meal.

different kinds of Japanese bread
So if you can't read Japanese characters (or moon-runes as my friend says) it's going to make picking up food from convenience stores...interesting. There are often foods that are clear what they are because they have pictures (such as square crust-less sandwiches) or ones where you can just see what's inside them (like other sandwiches). The image on the right shows some of the bread selections with sandwiches on the top; anpan (bun filled with sweet bean paste, and my favourite food in Japan) and cream swiss rolls on the second, and rolls with mysterious creams like 'milk cream' on the bottom.

Japan has an interesting use of flavours that you might not be used to in your home country but give them a go and you might be pleasantly surprised. Breads are one of the best thing to have for breakfast in Japan (maybe lunch too, but be careful about them getting squished in your bad), but bread in Japan is often going to be sweet. Even plain bread is sweet. If you're not a fan of sweet things onigiri might be your best bet.

onigiri at konbini in JapanOnigiri, or rice balls, are hit and miss. It really depends on what you like and how willing you are to gamble if you can't read Japanese. This is because most rice balls will not have pictures and might not even have furigana and ONLY kanji, so if you do know some Japanese texts you're still screwed. I ran into the problem of always picking up fish egg onigiri (harako), which personally I hate. I do recommend kelp (konbu) if you can find it.

But if you look at the picture on the left you can see that besides rice balls there are also take-out sushi boxes! You can clearly see what's in these which makes it easy to find something for lunch if you can't read Japanese and don't want to gamble.

Finally, if you want a proper meal you can choose from some of their pre-cooked meals like katsu-don (pork cutlet with egg over rice), or omurice (omlette with ketchup rice in the middle). Or they do salad if you want to be healthy. If you get a meal they might ask you "atatame-mashou ka" really quickly at the counter. This means "would you like it warmed up?". As a general rule I will always say "yes" because it might be that you want it warmed up or they be asking if you want chopsticks. Those are pretty much the only 2 questions they'll ask besides saying how much something is.

(If you want to know more about understanding people in stores you can see this post on Understanding Shop Japanese)

And then there are general snacks and crisps/chips. Basically you won't know what it's like until you've tried it. Experiment with these because 90% of the time they are really really good.

Where to eat your packed lunch!

Do not eat while walking please! It's considered rude, mostly because no body wants to see you nomming on your food right in front of them. If you can try and find a park or a bench to sit down at and eat your food. Otherwise you can stand still on the side of the pavement out of peoples way.

Top recommendations for food/drink:
  • Salads: Healthy food in Japan is hard to find when you're on the go. Keep yourself healthy by getting salad.
  • Breads: These are great to start the day because of the calories and sugar.
  • Ca;orie Mate: If you're on the go and you just need a snack or feel sick because you're hungry Calorie Mates are great at settling your stomach and getting nutrients in you.
  • Pocari sweat: I drank this when I had a cold and when I got heat stroke because it re-ionises and re-hydrates your body really quickly.
  • Water: Avoid sugary drinking and keep hydrated with water.
  • Milk tea: Tea in Japan is only sweet and very milky, but great for a caffeine boost. 
  • Boss coffee: Or any coffee but my friends swear Boss is the best. Great for caffeine boost.

Top tips for eating when out and about in Japan:

  • Stock up in the morning or night before with food and drinks for the day (you don't know if you'll be near anywhere to get food).
  • Drink regularly (especially if it's summer).
  • Eat at regular times (to help your body get over jetlag).
  • NEVER skip a meal! (All that walking around can make you sick if you don't eat)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Japan Hacks - Asking For Directions

You might get lost in Japan (actually you probably will get lost) and not all Japanese people know English (in fact hardly any do), so it's always helpful to be able to ask for and understand directions.

Who should I ask?

If you try to ask just anyone on the street they will probably not understand you or brush you off and run away. Some of the best people to ask for directions are people in convenience stores, post office staff, policemen, and train station staff.  These people are unlikely to be able to speak English though, so you might need to ask them in broken Japanese and trust on hand gestures (which work most of the time).

If you're too scared about asking in Japanese or not being understood then you should try a large train station where they will likely have tourist information and someone who speaks some English. They will often have maps and guides of the local area in English as well.

What should I say?

If you do get stuck and want to ask someone in Japanese where something is the simplest sentence to use is:

sumimasen, _____ wa doko desu ka? = excuse me, where is the ______?

Useful places to ask directions for:
train station = eki
bank = ginkou
convenience store = konbini
toilet = otoire OR otearai
police station = koban

This is a handy little video explaining how to ask for directions when visiting Japan:

How will I understand their response?

I mentioned that most Japanese people won't be able to speak English but you can get by with hand gestures and maps. Like in this video!

But there are some key words you should listen out for when people are giving direction, although you can guess this by their hand gestures it also helps to confirm them by understanding a few words.

left = hidari
right = migi
straight = masugu
in front = mae
behind = ushiro
traffic lights = shingo
corner = mado

This video can help you with these basic directions:

Just like in this video, when you learn verbs like "to turn" you will often get them in the "dictionary form", which is the basic form of the word, but this isn't how Japanese people will naturally say it when talking to you. They will normally break up the sentence into the following way:

Go straight, then turn left at the lights. It will be on the right. = masugu ni i-te, shingo ni maga-te, migi ni aru.

The words underlined above are the verbs mentioned in the video, but when you list a series of instructions in Japanese the verb changes from a "ru" sound to a "te" sound. This might seem a bit complicated at first but if you want to learn more Japanese language beyond the basics then this will be something you pick up on. Otherwise it's best to listen out to the few useful words.

If you would like to learn more complicated yet natural ways to ask for and understand directions I suggest the follow video: (Asking/Giving Directions) Japanese Conversation Lesson 5 by fluentjapanese

Good luck! Hope you don't get too lost! And if you do remember, it's an adventure!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Japan Hacks - Dealing with Long Flights and Jet-lag

If you are flying to Japan from Europe or the Americas you're going to have to travel a long way. We've managed to position ourselves so that Europe, North America and Japan are almost 1/3 of the world away from each other (depending of where you are in North America because that is a fat continent).

What is Jet-lag?

For those that don't know jet-lag occurs when you travel through over 2 or more time-zones and throws your natural body-clock out of whack. You feel tired and hungry at weird times of the day, and it can really impact your travels.

This is because your internal clock or "circadian rhythm" (which is when our body tells us when to eat and sleep) becomes desynchronised with the external clock. So although it might be 10pm in Japan and you should be getting ready for bed and sleeping, your body (if you're from the UK like me) thinks it 1pm and you should be wide awake and eating lunch.

It can take you up to day to recover from just 1 time zone (1hr) difference, so when you travel to Japan that could take about 9 days to recover! And THEN you have to go home and do it all over again!

How to Reduce Jet-lag

  • Begin to Adjust Your Time to Japan/Home
    Prepare to get prepared at least a week in advance! If you're travelling east to west start going to bed later, changing the time you go to bed by 30mins every night. And if you're going west to east, go to bed earlier.
  • Change Your Clock on the Plane
    Once you're on the plane and heading over there change your clock to match Japan's time. If it's day time try to stay awake, but if it's night try and sleep! Even if they're serving food this is very important and it will help you in the long run. (I've tried this and really does work! Although it does mean you miss out on some good in-flight movies).
  • Drink Lots and Lots and Lots and Lots of WaterCabin pressure on planes can cause dehydration, making jet-lag, and general health, a lot worse. Make sure you buy a bottle of water in the airport before you fly (after security) to take with you on the plane. They do hand out cups of water on the plane but you will need to drink lots of water and the cups they hand out isn't very much. Make sure you drink plenty before, during, and after your flight! (I do this every time I fly and it does make a difference).
  • Move AboutWhen you have to stay awake on the fight try and move about to keep your blood circulate. But don't exercise before you sleep (even after the flight) as this can stop you from sleeping. Boeing has some good in-seat exercises. (I've used this trick and it does help reduce jet-lag and makes you feel better, although they might look silly, it's worth it.)
  • Give Yourself a Day to Adjust
    This isn't just from jet-lag but for getting used to the area, where things are, how things work in Japan. Don't jump straight into travelling and sight-seeing and running around, you don't want to make yourself sick.
There are other guides on the internet with a lot more suggestions. These are a mix of those and my own personal tips.

How to Not Get Bored on a Flight

I am amazed at the number of times I've been on a flight and people haven't brought anything besides a fashion magazine. Then they have to sit there for 2hours+ doing nothing! Often short connecting flights won't have movies, or you might not find any movies you want to see. In that case I suggest you pack in your hand luggage:
  • A book or two (think about the return flight)
  • Portable video game (not your phone)
  • Small laptop/tablet with films/TV you want to see
  • Music
  • Japanese study (Memrise can be used offline if you download the course beforehand)
  • Note pad and pen/pencil (for drawing/writing)
Just be aware that there might not be any charging ports on the plane, and probably not at any connecting airports (unless you're lucky). So always bring something that doesn't need to be re-charged (like a book)!

Do you have your own advice for long flights? How do you get over jet-lag? Please leave your comments, thoughts and experiences.

Previous Japan Hack - Preparing for Japan

Next Japan Hack - Sightseeing in Tokyo - Where to Go & What to Do

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Japan Hacks - Preparing For Japan

This is the first instalment of specials called "Japan Hacks" which is about how to prepare and visit Japan if you are a first timer only going for a few weeks. These will be posted as I'm in Japan on my own short holiday and experiencing it as a tourist. Because of this they will be short and to the point.

Plan Your Trip

First you need to ask yourself some pretty important questions:

  1. Why do you want to go to Japan? What do you most want to see?
    Is it Japan's history, or art, or popular culture that you want to see? Make a list of what interests you the most so you can plan your trip around that.
  2. When do you want to/can you go to Japan?
    Are you better suited for cold or hot weather or neither? (Japan can have very extreme summers and winters.) Or perhaps you're more interested in festivals, in which case you can look up when certain festivals are
  3. How long can you/do you want to go?
    I always recommend at least 10-14 days. It's so far (from most English speaking countries) and there's so much to see that any less wouldn't be enough, even 10 days is rushing it.

October Aki Matsuri Korea Town OsakaOnce you have a general idea of what you want to do and where you want to go do your research. You can easily google most of this stuff and read about other people's experiences and advice. Although keep in mind that although everyone might have gone to Kyoto to see the Gold Temple, it might not be your cup of tea. 

Don't feel like you have to somewhere just because everyone else does. Some of the best experiences I've had have been off the beaten track and some of the more spontaneous and less well known events and locations. Such as Korea Town in Osaka, where they hold an Aki Matsuri, or Autumn Festival in the fall, which is now one of my favourite locations and favourite events, but also one of the least well known ones by foreign tourists.

Some Advice for Keeping it Cheap
  1. Book your flights and accommodation at least 6 months in advance. And on a Tuesday.
    Needless to say the sooner you book your flight the better. It will be cheaper and you tend to get better deals. Use a compare website such as expedia or skyscanner as well.

    But why a Tuesday? Well it's apparently one of the least likely days that someone will book a holiday on, meaning most prices will have dropped to encourage people to book things on Tuesdays. I don't know how true this is but from my experience, it works. That, or at least NOT a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, when prices are increased.
  2. Travel with someone and split the accomodation costs.
    Travelling in a group of 2-3 people makes visit Japan a lot cheaper, at least when it comes to accommodation. It also makes things more interesting. You can travel in larger groups but I'd suggest using Airbnb...
  3. Airbnb
    Airbnb is a company a friend recently pointed me to (and what we're using on this trip). They're a lot nicer and cheaper than using hotels, at least within the larger cities like Kyoto and Tokyo.
  4. Buy food from the supermarket rather than convenience stores
    Eating dinner out is standard when you go on holiday, but often breakfast and lunch might be on the go. Rather than going to the nearest "conbini" (which are everywhere) and picking up a sandwhich, go to the supermarket and stock up on supplies for breakfast and lunch. It'll be easier and often cheaper (especially in the big cities), although will require forward planning to find out where they are.

Essentials to Pack:

  • Passport
  • Money/Card to get money: It's often cheaper to withdraw cash in Japan, but do your research and let your bank know when you're going!!!
  • Appropriate clothes for the weather: spring might be warm in your country, but in Japan it can get cold, so don't forget a coat. Likewise, there's no point taking a coat in the summer when it's very hot.
  • Sensible shoes! You will almost definatly be walking a lot. So take good shoes, not heels.
  • Wash things and deodorant: Japanese people are biologically different to westerners, so you might want to take your own wash things rather than buying any out there which have been specially made for Japanese bodies.
  • Space in your suitcase for presents and souvenirs.

Do you have any of your own tips for preparing for Japan? Please leave a comment/your thoughts.

Previous - Introduction of Japan Hacks

Next Japan Hack - Dealing with Long Flights and Jet-lag