Katakana: when English is a foreign language

One of my hobbies when travelling in Japan is katakana-watching. Katakana are phonetic characters, originally a shorthand for kanji, that were developed in the 7th century  and are now primarily used in Japanese to represent words of foreign origin.

Common useful examples for travellers are words such as ビール (Biiru/Beer)、コーヒー(Kouhii/Coffee), ジュース(Juusu/Juice), タクシー (Takushii, Taxi), バス (Basu/Bus) and ワイン (Wain/Wine). If you can read the katakana, you can as often as not guess the meaning.

There are exceptions though. And that’s where it gets really interesting.

Outside my Tokushima hotel the other day, a large colourful signboard  was marked バイキングコース (Baikingu Kousu). The word BAIKINGU had a picture of a viking helmet next to it.  So, what’s a BAIKINGU KOUSU?

In Japanese, inspired by Scandinavian smorgasbords, BAIKINGU has come to mean buffet. Baikingu is used apparently because it is easier to say than smorgasbord, a fantastic logic.

Take a BAIKINGU KOUSU and gets some KOOCHINGU to fit your SUKEJUURU.

In this case though, the advert was for a language school. Baikingu referred to language courses; students could  choose whichever course they wanted.

On the next sign down was a 2,000 YEN item on the menu called ビジネスセット(Business set). What makes the ビジネスセット so special is that you get a beer served with your main meal. That’s my kind of business.

Katakana can be a foreign language at times, but that’s what makes it so interesting. Who would guess アラサー(Arasaa) means around 30 years old?

Or that スナック (Sunakku / snack) are bars where men go to chat with the female staff. Or that マンション (Manshon / mansion) means small apartment. That particular one has disappointed thousands of newly-arrived English teachers across Japan.

If you are still learning katakana, I can recommend the free Katakana Memory Hint App provided by the Japan Foundation. The Tofugu website also has some excellent katakana learning ideas and original material.

If you want to test your katakana skills, have a go at our Shimaguni Katakana quiz. At Shimaguni, we also run katakana learning events, as well as private and group Japanese lessons at our Shimaguni school in the North Laine. Please email info@shimaguni.co.uk for more details!

Doraemon: the robotic cat that can teach you Japanese

The other day, my boss came to visit me in hospital. He brought me a few お見舞い(O-MIMAI /gifts visiting someone sick) among which was the best-selling manga, Doraemon.

Reading the manga made me realise how useful Doraemon series can be for Japanese study. In this post, I will introduce you to an episode. I hope it may be useful in your Japanese studies.

Doraemon is a robotic cat from the future who hangs out with an ordinary schoolboy called Nobi Nobita. Doraemon provides Nobita magical gadgets to help him deal with bullies and other problems at school.

The language in Doraemon is that of schoolboys – generations of Japanese have grown up reading Doraemon – so note the language is generally very informal! The vocabulary though, is useful for all levels.

For maximum benefits, watch it more than once, even to just a short section, and if you can, read one of the manga episodes before or after watching.

The 12 minute episode embedded here is called PEKOPEKOBATTA. The theme of the episode is apologising.

To help out an indignant Nobita who has just had his glasses broken by a football, Doraemon picks out of his pocket a box of PEKOPEKOBATTA grasshoppers who fly into people and make them apologise for past misdemeanous.

The episode starts at 1:35. In the first minute, listen out for words such as:

メガネ (glasses) あぶない (dangerous) あやまる (apologise) よける (avoid) サッカー (football) やる (do) ボール (ball) 

PEKOPEKOBATTA – the insect that makes you say sorry

Some other key words from later in the episode are below. (Note, the antidote to PEKOPEKOBATTA is pepper!)

わるかった (Sorry / I was wrong) わるもの (bad person) なぐる (hit) オレ(I informal) はんせいする(reflect on) こしょう(pepper)

If you get to the end, can you catch what Nobita’s Mum and Dad are apologising to each other for?

病気!A week in a Japanese hospital

Last week I was leading a 10 day walking tour along Shikoku’s famous 88 Temple Pilgrimage Circuit. On a seaside walk, on the way to the remote Muroto Peninsula, we stopped at a cliff top rest-house for a bento lunch. Mine was sushi, bought from the roadside Michi No Eki.

A few hours later I started getting strong stomach pains. It must have been some dodgy sushi I thought, and I tried to carry on with the tour. I was wrong. It wasn’t the sushi that was the problem. 48 hours later an ambulance was racing me across the island for an emergency appendix removal.

Now a week later, I am still in Tokushima Hospital, but a few kilos and an appendix lighter.  Looking back, the 1 hour ambulance ride sirens blazing, the rushed phone-calls to colleagues and all the doctors and nurses crowding around my trolley, all seem like they happened to someone else. Perhaps in some senses they did. The events were certainly enough to make me reassess a few things, and the moments of morphine-induced semi-enlightenment quite suitable for a Buddhist-themed tour.

I was very lucky. The doctors were incredibly professional and efficient. The nurses have also been both attentive and sensitive, constantly asking me いける. This question confused me at first as they seemed to be asking if I was able to go somewhere. At that point I was still attached to a drip, had a white tube up my nose and a yellow tube sticking out of my stomach. Surely they didn’t want me to leave already? Were the beds filling up? But they were actually just asking if I was alright. In this case, いける is KANSAI-BEN (the KANSAI region dialect) and means 大丈夫「だいじょうぶ」 (OK/alright).

The view from my bed on the 9th floor of Tokushima Hospital

On the way to an X-ray, a chatty nurse told me the hospital was built by an architect who used to design hotels. This made sense. At times it has even felt like a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn). I can lounge around all day in a turquoise yukata logged onto my portable Wi-fi with on call staff at a push of a button.  Food and drinks gets served to our rooms (beds). We even get checked on at night, an indescribable thrill I haven’t experienced in over 30 years.

And like a ryokan stay, the option to roll into bed anytime is irresistibly tempting, and utterly guilt free. じゃ、ちょっとよこになるね。(Right, I’m just going to lie down for a bit)

A dose of small-town Japan: Onomichi

This autumn I spent 2 months leading tours across Japan. This post describes a day away from tour-leading spent in Onomichi, a quiet historic town on the shore of the Inland Sea.

Onomichi and the Inland Sea seen from Senkoji temple

After an 11 day tour, then getting up at 5am for a send off at the airport before a 3 hour train ride, I arrived in Onomichi tired but exhilarated to be let loose in a new place.

Onomichi, a few miles east of Hiroshima, features in the 1940s classic Ozu film, Tokyo Story. I saw the film in a Japan Club event 3 years ago. In Tokyo Story, Onomichi is the hometown of the aged parents who travel by train to visit their busy children in Tokyo.

Leisurely distraction appeared immediately, a historic temple-trail starting just outside the small train station. On the hillside above me, the sacred sites of old Onomichi and several stray cats beckoned.

The narrow asphalt temple trail took me between houses, temples, shrines and school grounds passing school-children, startled cats and locals freewheeling down on scooters.

As the sun began to set, I stopped at a temple gate to take a photo (actually, mainly to catch my breath). The green islands in the Inland Sea loomed large beneath the orange sky. Just then, 3 boys from the school athletics club jogged past followed by the call of monks chanting the Lotus Sutra. The effect was magical, even after discovering the tune came straight out of a tape recorder.

Accommodation was easy to find. I found a place to stay, using the latest fad in tech-savvy Japan: the intanetto, or simply the netto. My bunk for the night was in The Conger Eel Bunkhouse (Anago no Nedoko). Conger eel is a famous product of Onomichi and the guesthouse name reflects the narrow eel-like shape of the building which is a renovated Meiji-period clothes house.

At the front of the guesthouse was an even more curiously-named establishment, カフェあくび (Cafe Yawn). I couldn’t fathom the reason for the name, maybe because it was so relaxing? Check out the photos of the retro-interior and school-lunch style food here

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Anago no Nedoko is in the middle of a traditional shôtengai (shopping mall), some of which  house so many closed businesses they are prefixed by the word シャッター (shutter). The conversion of the old clothes shop is representative of the movement to bring these shôtengai back to life. In a similar fashion, a little further along the street an old bathhouse had been converted into a cafe and souvenir store. 

On the hillside, I heard about a 2nd hand bookshop that opens from 11pm-3am. Another sign that the normal rules of business do not apply in Onomichi. 

Dinner was curry rice in Cafe Yawn, enjoyed while listening to the 1940’s song Tokyo Boogie Woogie. The tatami mat floor in Anago was a communal lounge and a centre of international exchange. After dinner, I sat there sharing typhoon tales with a Polish and Spanish couple who live together in Dublin and a girl from Hokkaido on a round-the-world trip. The Europeans had come to Onomichi to cycle the Shimanami Kaido, an amazing island-hopping ride which I huffed and puffed along the next day.  

Briefly, for one day only, it was wonderful to be a traveller in Japan again not tied to anything, absorbed in the moment. revelling in the magic of a crisp autumn afternoon. After some stressful days leading groups through city crowds, small town Japan offered the perfect balance of recreation and tranquility.   I recommend Onomichi highly; I am not the only one to either; and I didn’t yawn once.

Brighton’s best cafes: The Lanes


The Lanes, not to be confused with the North Laine, is the historic heart of Brighton and a major attraction for visitors. It is also home to many of Brighton’s coffee shops, including a few Shimaguni favourites.

ザ・レーンズ(ノース レーンではないのでご注意を!)は、昔からブライトンの中心地であり、ブライトンを訪れる人にとって、とても魅力的な場所の一つです。


Do you know where the best cafe in Brighton is?

If you know, would you mind telling me?

Although it is difficult to decide which is the best, one thing is for sure that there are many popular cafes in The Lanes.
I will introduce some of my favourites here.



Marwood has a unique atmosphere, distinctive interior and is very popular with young people
The 2 floors of seating are very spacious.
My preferred cup of tea comes at a very reasonable £1:50 which makes me very happy. They also have Wifi.
火曜日から土曜日までは夜の11までやっています。 夜のお勉強にオススメできます。
From Tuesday-Saturdays, it is open until 11pm – great for late night study!

Cafe Coho


Cafe Coho is next to Marwood and also has 2 floors. Since 2010 the store is only in Brighton and is loved by the locals.
The food is good and the coffee is excellent. It has Wifi.

I have heard from a few Japan Club members that the cream teas here are absolutely delicious. Having said that, I have actually never eaten them. I would like to, but either the shop is full or my stomach is. A cosy little shop with excellent service.
You surely won’t need Wifi here
Warning: The store is currently closed for refurbishment.

That Little Tea Shop In the Lanes


This is a cosy, traditional tea shop. I love the traditional tea pot which they fill to the brim with tea. There are many varieties of cake and scone here.
You surely won’t have time to use Wifi here.

Two months in Japan

By Tom Orsman, Teacher at Shimaguni Language School, Brighton.

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from 2 months in Japan. I am using this blog to record my lasting impressions of the trip.

A Jizo, a protector of children and travelers – and a personal friend.

The number of tourists in Japan is at record-breaking levels.  Booking decent hotels is hard. Booking one in Kyoto during hanami season is next to impossible – especially if like me you only start hunting the night before. For a moment, I thought I had uncovered an absolute bargain hotel at just 5,000 for two nights. Then just  before clicking book, I noticed the price was in pounds not yen – I was a click from bankruptcy.  I ended up lodging at the cheap and central, コミカプ Comicapu (‘comic capsule’ –  basically a bunk bed in a library)  sleeping under a shelf of manga and surrounded by a dozen snoring tourists.

New encounters everyday. On a trip to one of the most densely-populated countries in the world it is hard to avoid people, and I promise you, on some days I really tried. But it was these surreal 一期一会 (ichigo-ichie) once in a lifetime meetings that made the trip so special. Some of the most interesting characters were naked when I talked to them – we were soaking in an 温泉(onsen) hot spring bath at the time.

Generally, baths and bars seem to be the easiest places to talk to people – perhaps humans need to be either drunk or naked before we can really relax. On this trip, I enjoyed reunions with old Brighton Japan Club members over beer and smoked radish in Nagoya, sitting at a sleek 日本酒 nihonshu bar in Hiroshima, and chewing yakitori at a 屋台 (yatai) stall in Ueno Park.

Forests and fresh air. The contrast between the city and countryside is incredible. Parts of Tokyo and Osaka are a swamp of advertising; the eardrums get no rest either from constant jingle-jangle tunes. The crowds around Dotonbori in Osaka are amazing but the best was the total isolation of the Kumano Kodo World Heritage trails further south, where we couldn’t see out of the wood for the trees, and all we could hear was the 鶯 (uguisu) bush warbler. I felt constantly reassured by the fact that I was never far from this Japan, one with far less people, many more trees and no programmed musical accompaniment.

Japanese food versus food in Japan.  Most of my time on tour is spent in traditional accommodation where the food (breakfast and dinner) is cooked fish, colourful pickles, miso soup and bowls and bowls of sticky white rice – what we think of as traditional Japanese food. This is served along with local delicacies like イタドリ(itadori) Japanese knotweed, 高野豆腐 (Koya-dofu) freeze-dried tofu, and potentially fatal raw slices of ふぐ (fugu) blowfish.

Nothing like beans on toast. Dinner on the Kumano Kodo Trail.

When not on tour, it is fun to discover the quirky alternatives. In Nagasaki I encountered トルコライス (Turkish rice), an international hodge-potch calorie-heavy combination of rice, spaghetti and deep-fried pork. In Kyoto, I tried 和ぱすた  (Wapasuta) a Japanese-style pasta – Range of surreal snacks メロンパン (meron pan) a sugar cooated melon-shaped bread, プレーンドッグ (purein doggu) a no frills hot dog, いちごサンド (ichigo sando) a crustless white bread sandwich packed with strawberry and cream.

Now, back in Brighton, I miss the forests, the hot baths and dicing with death at dinnertime but fortunately there are plenty of consolation about being home. I am now excited about the summer ahead with new Japanese language courses starting at Shimaguni in July and an exciting series of new events coming up at Japan Club.   I hope to see you at an event soon.




このMeet upグループでもFacebookでもたくさんのイベントが行われています。少人数のイベントでは仲良くなる機会が多く、大人数のイベントではたくさんの人と知り合える可能性が高いです。友達と参加するのも楽しいですが、新たな友人をつくりたいのであれば私は一人で参加することをおすすめします。一人でというのは勇気のいることですが、強制的にほかの人と話すことになるためより機会が増えます。友達と参加するとどうしてもずっと一緒に行動してしまい、イベントは楽しめるのですが新しい友人との出会いはあまりないのです。私の場合なのでもちろんすべての方に当てはまるわけではないのですが…





Japanese Food in Brighton

E-kagen An established, much-loved Japanese diner in the heart of the North Laine – near Shimaguni. Friendly staff and great service. No frills and reasonable prices. A real authentic experience.

Kantenya The only specialist Japanese food shop in Brighton. In a great location opposite the big Sainsbury’s and 2 minutes walk from Brighton station. Runs great seasonal promotions, bento style lunches and is full of friendly Japanese staff

Sushi Garden On the popular restaurant-road of Preston Street, Sushi Garden specialises in a variety of noodles, rice and sushi dishes. Not cheap but gets good reviews.

Pompoko In the centre of Brighton and a few minutes walk from the station, Pompoko is known for it’s inexpensive yet satisfying and tasty mix of many Japanese dishes. Although quite popular and can get very occupied at lunch time.

Oshio Located on Trafalgar Street (very close to Shimaguni school!) Newly opened restaurant specialising in Japanese and Korean cuisine. Great reviews.

Cafe An-An Ok, not actually in Brighton, in nearby Portslade, but must be mentioned for its fantastic wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), popular events and excellent lunches. Irregular opening hours so please check before you go.

Oki-nami Most exclusive Japanese restaurant in Brighton – right opposite the Pavilion. Part wwned by local celebrity Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim. Great sushi and bar apparently.

Sushi Mania On Middle Street in the middle of the The Lanes. Large chain-style restaurant with big menu suitable for big groups.  Offers half-price deal promotions.

Shogun On Prince Albert Street, Shogun is a popular ramen shop in Brighton. Very authentic in style and taste. Limited menu but very tasty.

Murasaki The most elusive, ninja-like of all the Japanese restaurants in Brighton.  The restaurant lurks up on Dyke Road near Seven Dials and the takeaway is up from Western Road on Montpelier Place.

Moshimo Located in Bartholomew Square, Moshimo is one of Brighton’s most popular Japanese Restaurants. Known for it’s building aesthetic imitating a traditional Japanese room and it’s authenticity. Handmade sushi and various hot Japanese dishes are available here. Very tasty.

Yo! Sushi Located on Jubilee Street close to the library. Yo! Sushi is a popular sushi chain across Britain. Known for it’s interesting conveyor belt style of dining and cute coloured plates. A great place to go for a unique Japanese experience.