To Japan and back

I have written this blog post to give readers (and possibly even myself) an idea of who I (Tom Orsman) am, of how I ended up in Japan, and finally of why in 2014 I started Shimaguni school teaching Japanese in Brighton.

The post was meant to be less than 200 words, but I got a little carried away.

Right, here goes….

I grew up in a small Devon village. Both the village and the area are beautiful. It was a great place to grow up, but there weren’t – and still aren’t – many jobs around, certainly not conventional jobs anyway.

When I returned to Devon from University, the first job I could find was as a tram driver on the local tourist tramway. After that I took a job as a grater at a nearby cheese factory. After a year of this, I decided I needed to escape.

So at 22, I went to Australia on a 1 year working holiday. Via 3 month stints working as a kitchen hand in both Melbourne and Sydney, I found a seasonal job as an apple picker on a farm outside Perth.

The advert for the job had been taped to the wall of a phone box. Seeing that advert would change the rest of my life.

The farm I stayed at for 3 months had a separate building for accommodating all the seasonal fruit pickers. Almost all the pickers were on the same overseas 1-year travel visa that I was.

Most of the fruit pickers were young, energetic Europeans and North Americans. The only exception was a large group of Japanese people.

I did not speak to any of the Japanese at first: I was far too shy, but I was very curious about them. They seemed so quiet and gentle compared with the sometimes loud and brash Europeans and North Americans on the farm.

The obvious cultural differences between the 2 groups was astonishing. The Europeans seemed to show a different way of living; the Japanese seemed to show a different way of being.

One man either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the differences. He was a very friendly, likeable, curly-haired New Zealander called Casey.

He regularly spoke with one of the Japanese in the group while we picked apples together. I always listened in, fascinated to hear stories of a world beyond my imagination.

Casey later told me he was applying for a job teaching English in Japan. He told me I should try applying too. I had never really thought about teaching as a career up to that point, not for lack of interest in the job but more because I did not believe I knew anything worth teaching. But if the job is good enough for Casey I thought, it is good enough for me. So I began the application straightaway.

After Casey left the farm, I finally plucked up the courage to speak to some of the Japanese on the farm myself. Some I realised were even shier than I had been. I ended up becoming friendly with some of them, so much so that thanks to the new craze of that time called e-mail, we were able to keep in touch and meet up again in Japan.

On my return to the UK, I travelled up to London for an interview for a Japan-wide chain of English Conversation Schools. A few months later at 24, I found myself moving to Nagoya, Japan’s 4th largest city to teach English.

At this point I had never eaten sushi, did not know what anime or geishas were, and I certainly did not speak any Japanese.

The only thing I really knew for sure about Japan and the Japanese people was that I had really enjoyed picking apples with them. And at that stage, that was enough.


One Woman’s Courage

Last June, I received an email out of the blue about a book called  “One Month in Tohoku: An Englishwoman’s Memoir on Life after the Japanese Tsunami.” As someone living in Tokyo at that time, I wanted to know that story.

The author and of the book and the email, Caroline Pover kindly agreed to host a free online event for Brighton Japan Club members to hear an excerpt from her book, and to discuss her life and experiences in Japan and in the Tohoku region after the 2011 tsunami.

At the time of the disaster in 2011, Caroline had been a Tokyo resident for 15 years. Japan was her home and she loved it. This book tells the extraordinary tale of how the disaster turned her own life upside down, and how she found a unique and inspiring way to help


After the tragedy of Match 2011, Caroline asked herself, ‘How can I help Japan best?’. This was not an easy question to answer.

At the time, many foreigners had had to leave Japan. Then, there were many others trying to carry on as if nothing had changed.

In 2011, I was working as tour leader in Tokyo. The tsunami and nuclear crisis meant I had no work, and the whole idea of tourism seemed slightly obscene. I remember feeling completely helpless and inadequate. Every news cycle brought more sad news. My lifestyle seemed stupid. I vowed never to read manga again. (I broke it)

In June, 3 months after the tsunami, I had the opportunity to go as a volunteer for a week with Peaceboat to Ishinomaki. This helped ease some of my guilt and feelings of helplessness. Looking back, just being allowed to help was a gift in itself.

But even then, as a small cog in a large volunteer organisation, it was hard to see how much we were helping. Sometimes we were just in the way. Shovelling mud for a week was definitely important, but wasn’t there another way we could help?

I didn’t find it. But, Caroline found a way of helping in a way nobody else could do.

(Caroline about to distribute Valentine’s Day chocolates on Oshika in 2012)

She used her entrepreneurial and English skills. She flew back to the UK and raised money and educated people by running talks and events schools around the country. She then began travelling back and forth to Tohoku to deliver goods and also find out exactly what was needed by the locals.

Caroline directly connected the desire of many British people to give with the immediate material needs of the people living in the disaster area. She also didn’t wait for an opportunity to help, but took it upon herself to act.

During her time in Tohoku, on the Oshika peninsula Caroline distributed goods, set up free markets of clothing contributed by her contacts, raised money for and helping build a bus shelter, a library, the important local shrine repairs and helping with the wakame harvest and much much more.

As Caroline explains in the book, during the 1 month she spent on Oshika in 2012, she didn’t decide what was needed: she asked the locals. “I spent my days asking ‘What do you need?’ to every single person I met, and my nights saying ‘How can I help?’ to myself”.

This method was as Caroline states “incredibly effective”, and helped build a network of close contacts and on the beautiful Oshika peninsula that have lasted to this day. The book is full of stories not statistics. The many amusing interactions with Oshika locals show another side to Japan that is rarely seen in western media.

Her fundraising efforts in the UK and online then and since then have raised money for projects on the remote Oshika peninsula. The Oshika peninsula became Caroline’s home from home since 2011 after driving there from Tokyo to distribute supplies to a community that felt abandoned.

Caroline’s love for the Oshika peninsula, its inhabitants and traditions shine throughout this book. Her openness, honesty and self-awareness make it am inspiring, enlightening and at times startling read.

One Month in Tohoku is available from Amazon. Please click on the link below.

One Month in Tohoku: An Englishwoman’s Memoir on Life after the Japanese Tsunami: Pover, Caroline, Warren, Sir David Alexander: 9781838072704: Books

Talking Points: Japanese Books and films for 2021 events

As the year comes to an end, I would like to propose some books and films to talk about at our 2021 online events. They are chosen not for being new or trendy, but for showing a different side to Japan through a different voice. Please leave comments below.


Where the Dead Pause and The Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. // A mix of travelogue, memoir and investigation into religious practice in Japan. Set in the north east, Tohoku region after the March 2011, tsunami, this is a moving and fascinating read. Great for understanding Japanese religious beliefs better, and for getting the most out of those temple visits on a trip to Japan.

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Matsuda Aoko (translated by Polly Barton) // A feminist retelling of Japanese ghost stories, a modern twist on old rakugo and kabuki stories, this new books provides a lot to think about and discuss with it’s blend of old and the new, and it’s look at male and female gender roles in Japan.

Travels With A Writing Brush: Classical Japanese Travel Writing from Manyoshu to Basho, edited by Meredith McKinney. /// There is easily enough material here for 2 or 3 discussion events. This collection of writings of 1,000 years of travel in Japan, is a great way to discover new writers and see trends and changes in Japanese history and culture. Informative throughout. To be read slowly and cherished.

Tales From A Mountain Cave: Stories from Japan’s Northeast by Inoue Hisashi (translated by Angus Turvill)// A brilliantly-written, humorous retelling of local folk stories set in Kamaishi, a port on the North East where the author lived in the post-war period. This short unconventional book focuses on a remote and forgotten region. A very enjoyable read.

The Wisdom Of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony by Noriko Morishita (translated by Eleanor Goldsmith)// Refreshing reflections on over a dozen years of lessons on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Beautifully-written and translated, this fascinating books shares insights from the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and shows how the world of tea helped the author with her struggles to find work and happiness in Tokyo in the late 20th century.

Other possibilities

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

Ghost Stories by Lafcadio Hearn

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho


Akira Released in 1988, this cyberpunk adventure is one of the most famous and influential anime ever made. I would love to hear what other make of it as I am very confused by it.

Tanpopo A comic, noodle-western by controversial director Juzo Itami. It follows the story of 2 truck drivers trying to help a single mother running a struggling ramen bar.

Tokyo Godfathers Perhaps the closest there is to a Christmas anime, so my timing might be a little off here, but this film by Satoshi Kon is very unlike conventional anime and draws attention to interesting parts of life in Japan.

Japanese Book and Film recommendations

Last night, I joined 10 other members from Brighton Japan Club to share our Japanese book and film recommendations.

We had a great mix of ideas, from contemporary Netflix dramas to 18th century haiku poems, from a modern violent horror films to a silent black and white classic.

Japan’s most famous author, Haruki Murakami’s books came up prominently, but it was also nice to see hear of new writers such as Yoko Ogawa whose short story The Tale of the House of Physics came highly recommended.

I really enjoyed the event, and I hope everybody who attended did too.

We plan to meet again next week to decide on a book and film to read and watch and then to compare views on it. Please join us next Thursday night and share your ideas if you can.

📽️ 📚 (2nd Meeting) Japan Bookclub / Japan FilmClub

Thursday, Nov 5, 2020, 8:30 PM

Online event

7 Brighton Japan Club Members Attending

Join this event to have say in the first book and film to be read and watched by this club. You do not need to have attended the first event to join. We can vote on the best option, then meet again to share our views on it. ————————————————— Do you have a favourite Japanese book or film to talk about? Please tell …

Check out this Meetup →

The recommended books and films from last night’s event are below

BooksFilms / Dramas
The Tale of the House of Physics by Yoko OgawaMidnight Diner (Netflix drama)
1Q84 by Haruki MurakamiShoplifters (directed by Hirokazu Koreeda)
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu SuzukiSamurai Gourmet (Netflix drama)
The Pocket Haiku by Sam HamillThe Naked Island (directed by Kaneto Shindo)
The Little House by Kyoko NakajimaIchi the Killer (directed by Takashi Miike)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka MurataWhen Marnie Was There (directed by Miyazaki Hayao)
Kafka On the Shore by Haruki MurakamiAsobi Asobase (anime)

What would you add to the list?

Special mention should also go to the only music mention of the night, Necry Talkie.

Read Yoko Ogawa’s, the Tale of the House of Physics in here.

To Japan and Back (Part 2)

This post is about my first 2 years teaching in Japan and its challenges and rewards.

In March 2002, I went to Japan to teach English. At the time, I knew nothing about Japan or teaching. I was heading for a series of shocks.

Everyday things that came naturally to Japanese people seemed immensely difficult. I could not sit on the floor without my knees screaming in agony. I couldn’t use chopsticks to eat properly. I couldn’t even greet people properly as I did not know how to bow without either headbutting somebody or falling over.

Language was also a shock in an unexpected way. In Japan even English did not make sense. Place names could be particularly confusing. For instance, the convenience store chain called 7-11 was open 24 hours, and the chain called Lawson never had anyone inside it who could possibly be called Lawson.

Then there were things like toilet slippers. In Japan, people wear toilet slippers in the toilet. It took me many, many years to accept this fact. As with curry doughnuts and strawberry sandwiches, I could understand the words, I just could not understand what they were doing next to each other.


Right from the start, the Japanese language fascinated me. It was so different. In my first Japanese textbook, I had learnt there were no exact translations for Yes or No. How does a society function without being able to say no?

Of course, I later learnt there are ways of expressing yes and no in Japanese but they aren’t as straightforward as a simple substitution. How boring languages would be if it was simply replacing word for word.

Even more surprisingly, I read ‘there is no exact translation for the word I in Japanese’. I stared at that sentence for a long time. If there is no word for I, then what am I? Could I choose to be whatever I wanted?

To a certain extent, I could. Not only could I choose which word I used to refer to myself in Japanese such as WATASHI (general), BOKU (polite, male) or ORE (informal,male), I could also become a different person. In Japan, I had no past, no expectations or pressure that I would behave in a certain way.

I would later notice how Japanese people could become like different people when speaking in English, as if they were freer. I guess newly learnt words are lighter and fresher, not weighed down by past-memories.


My first guide to Japan was an Australian man I was sharing a flat with. He had only been in Japan a couple of months but compared to me, he seemed to know everything. I soaked it all up.

One day, he said he had even felt confident enough to start talking to the girl working at Lawson. He had tried to ask her if she was well (Genki desu ka). Except he forgot to say the word for well, (genki). Twice, with a growing queue behind him, he had asked the girl, “Are you……..?”

I enjoyed hearing this story. It made me feel making mistakes was fine. It took away some of my inbuilt fear of getting things wrong or being laughed at.


My job was teaching English in a small school a 40 minute train ride out of Nagoya. Working with 4 other teachers, our students were a mix of housewives, office workers, and youngsters preparing to travel overseas.

Some teachers found talking to the students boring, but I found this part of the job fascinating (bear in mind though, my previous job to this was operating a cheese grating machine in Devon).

Until I began teaching, I had seen Japanese people as a group with very similar personalities. But in class they were all so different. There were introverts and extroverts, quiet and loud people. The dynamic could be really interesting. I remember teaching a class of 2 students, a talkative 15 year old schoolgirl and a shy 60 year old nuclear scientist.

The little things stood out. A gentle, grey-haired man insisted on calling me Tom-san (Mr Tom). Students were not supposed to use Japanese words in class at all, but the fact he used one for me made me feel special and valued.

Two housewives were well known amongst the staff for different reasons, Masako was always smiling and never stopped talking. Keiko would never smile, and only spoke reluctantly. Managing these different needs and interests in a small classroom was a constant challenge.


The Japanese staff in the school reception were the model of how to behave. In the same building, only a wall away from the teacher’s room but theirs was a different world. They dressed smarter, bowed deeper, and worked much harder – for less money as well.

Some teachers, and I include myself in this, could make a suit look scruffy. A British teacher at our school regularly wore shirts so transparent you could see the Iron Maiden t-shirt underneath. The staff never let him teach the free trial lessons for fear of scaring the new student off.

Looking back, I think many of the Japanese staff looked at us with some amusement. We could not help but do the wrong thing. I once bought a single banana for lunch from the supermarket, when she saw it the school manager almost cried with laughter. “You can’t break one off the bunch you know”, she told me. I felt like I had broken an ancient taboo.

Many Japanese I saw seemed so serious and stressed, but working with them showed a different side. When not in work mode they would laugh and smile so easily. I wanted to communicate better with them. So I memorized phrases from the dictionary – a flawed technique for beginning a friendship perhaps.

Memorising phrases like “Anata wa tsukare o shiranai hatarakimono,” (You don’t know the meaning of the word of tired) did not suddenly enable me to fluently converse with the Japanese staff, but it did at least make me feel I was making progress with my Japanese.  And delivered at the right moment in a thick Devon-accent, it was guaranteed to get a laugh.

Learning Japanese was nothing like I remembered learning French at school. It was fun, and it felt alive, learning a word could make a real difference to the quality of our lives not simply an exam result.

Growing up, I had struggled in formal education socially and academically. Looking back, the main thing I learnt at school was what I could not do. In Japan I started finding out what I could do.

Whereas at school in England, I could not compete with my classmates and I got left behind; in Japan I didn’t need to compete; we were all on the same side. Fellow teachers from Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia and the UK became friends and a vital source of support.

In Japan I felt free from social and academic pressure. I did not need to answer other people’s questions anymore. The only questions I wanted to answer were the ones I was making myself.


The actual teaching could be extremely hard. How do you teach somebody to do something you never learnt to do yourself?  

One day a student asked me the meaning of ‘find out’. My mind went blank and I panicked as I suddenly realised I had no idea of the meaning of what was coming out of my mouth. It was a scary, hang on, what-the-hell-am-I-moment.

We had only been given 3 days on the job training. I wanted to know more about how to teach. A 1 month holiday between contracts gave me the chance to fly off to take a Teaching Course in Thailand. On the course, we learnt how to teach conversation-focused classes. We even went into a Thai school to do some live teaching practice. The experience gave me the confidence to stand up and try new things.

Returning to Japan after the course, teaching became more enjoyable. I looked forward to lessons rather than feared them.


My interest in Japanese was growing. The writing system now fascinated me. Japan uses 4 different systems to write words:

漢字(kanji) the scary-looking Chinese-origin characters common in newspapers and notices.

カタカナ (katakana) the blocky-characters common in western-origin words that cover menus.

ひらがな (hiragana) the curvy characters that knit words together into sentences;

Romaji (roman letters – the alphabet) used to urgently attract attention to things like toilet slippers.

Both katakana and hiragana are phonetic alphabets of 46 characters. Learning katakana and hiragana early on made some aspects of life easier and enjoyable.

The 2,000 kanji in common use took a lot longer, many years longer in fact. In my 2 years in Nagoya, I learnt a couple of hundred kanji. Even without knowing the pronunciation, just knowing the characters 肉 (meat) and 魚 (fish) made choosing from a menu less of a gamble, and knowing 出口 (way out), 入口 (way in), 女 (women) and男 (men) made it easy to get out of the train station or into the correct toilet.

Learning Japanese has begun as a hobby with my own very amateur approach. To really improve, I needed structure. I signed up for a course of evening classes which helped me pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N3 exam. After 18 months, I felt I had reached a real milestone. I was no way near fluent, but I knew my way around the language.


Once I had gained confidence in teaching, I became a bit more creative. Although we had to use a textbook in all our classes, we had some freedom. One day in class with silent Mayumi, I reversed the seating arrangements and she suddenly started speaking. It was as if she had been switched on. From then on, she did not stop speaking, and she began smiling as well. It was like magic, and I felt a real joy in being a part of it.

There were parts of the job I did not like though. I didn’t like wearing a suit for one thing. I had never had to wear a suit to grate cheese – the tie would have got stuck, and I couldn’t understand why I needed to wear one to teach English.

The constant changes of students also meant it was hard to build a relationship and oversee their progress. With the school, the emphasis was on profit – getting more bookings, rather than genuine education. I wanted to try teaching somewhere elsewhere in the world.

So after 2 amazing years, feeling I needed a new challenge, I ended up leaving Japan. My last home in Nagoya was right outside the train station, in an ageing 20 story tower block called Free Bell (also known as the gaijin house – the foreigners house). 

I had been living in Japan, but only really on the edge of society looking in. I was going back to Europe, but I was taking a lot of Japan in my head with me. It never left me and 2 years later I would find a way back to Japan, and in a lot deeper.  

What is Shimaguni?

In this post I would like to explain what Shimaguni is and what we do.

Shimaguni is a language school teaching private and group Japanese lessons. We have been teaching classes with in Brighton since 2014.

Our group lessons are run as 6 week courses that begin throughout the year. Private lessons can be booked morning, afternoon or night any day of the week (subject to availability).

Private and group classes are taught by Tom Orsman (a non-native speaker) and Mari Maeda (a native Japanese speaker).

Currently all our lessons are online only. We plan to run face to face classes again in the near future.

As well as Japanese classes, we also run French classes, and English classes aimed at Japanese students. We also host a regular series of Japan-themed events and activities advertised through the Brighton Japan Club Meetup Group.

Along with regular language exchanges, quizzes, and talks, we also meet up regularly. On the 1st of January, we even swim in the sea on Brighton beach (new volunteers for this event are always welcome).

Group lessons follow a course structure. This structure is based on the popular Genki textbook.

There is no requirement to buy the Genki textbooks to take our classes as we provide students with our own study material. Some students do choose to buy the book and find it useful. Read more about Genki here.

Private lesson students can choose the content of their classes. We can discuss with you a best learning plan and make recommendations. Classes can either follow a course structure, or in consulatation with the student, we can offer customised classes.

We also run online classes for children, for preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), and for GCSE and A Level exam preparation.

RATES: Private classes can be booked for 1 hour (30 pounds) or 30 minutes (15 pounds).  Our 6 week group courses cost 80 pounds for first time students, and 60 pounds for students who have taken classes before.

Please email for bookings and enquiries.

Genki: The Best Textbook?

We recommend the Genki textbook to our students at Shimaguni. Here, I will explain why I think it is a great resource for serious beginners.

I will also explain how and when we use Genki for our private and group lessons at Shimaguni.

What are the Genki books?

The Genki books form a course in Elementary Japanese. The 2 main textbooks are comprehensive. The 23 chapters in textbooks take you from being an Absolute Beginner, to being able to understand and produce complex expressions and vocabulary.

The textbooks are made for classroom study, but many exercises can be done independently at home. The detailed grammar explanations provide a wordy but excellent resource. A separate workbook can also be purchased for home study.

With the books, you can practice listening, reading, writing and speaking skills as well as learning a huge amount of important beginner vocabulary. Please note the audio files need to be played on a computer or an MP3 player, not a CD player (there are also online sites for listening to the audio).

What do the books cover?

The bulky textbooks cover a lot of material, although the layout can be a little confusing at first. Basically, the dialogues and exercises in the main part of the book are for working on speaking and listening skills. The lessons at the back are for studying reading and writing.  

In the Genki 1 book for example, you can learn 130 Chinese Characters as well as the hiragana and katakana scripts. Along with the grammar introduced in the 12 chapters of the book, this would take students roughly to a level ready to take the N5 exam of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test).

While the content of Genki is primarily aimed at use in University courses, it is also useful for adults learning “at a school or on their own”. The Genki textbooks have been around since 1999, and they are now in their 3rd edition.

Genki is the closest to a bible of Japanese study. It gets picked apart mainly because it is so popular. This popularity can benefit the learner. If you have a question from Genki, you can almost guarantee someone online has asked the same question before.

Compared to other textbooks, Genki is expensive, especially if you buy the workbook as well. The advantage of Genki over other textbooks is its size; you can learn more, and learn it more efficiently following a proven format.

The vocabulary of Genki

The vocabulary is the heart of any textbook. Genki systematically introduces a lot of language you can rely on. Basically if it is in the book, it is common in conversation. This is really important for the learner.

Common means important – worth learning. If a word is not common, you are much more likely to forget it because you won’t come across it so often.

When I began learning Japanese, I spent far too long learning low frequency words, words only ever used in a specific context. I kept trying to learn advanced vocabulary before I knew the beginner alternative. I was trying to make cranberry sauce before I could boil a potato.

If I had started my Japanese study with a book like Genki, I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble.

The style of Genki

A common criticism of Genki is the dialogues in Genki do not sound very natural. Some of the expressions do sound a little stiff and unlike how natives speak. I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing though.

Natives acquire language as a child over years of exposure, not by a few months looking at a textbook. The acquisition of a language as a child cannot be imitated in a textbook.

Even if it could, I am not convinced it is always desirable to sound exactly like a native when still a beginner.

The textbook is a tool to help students understand how native speech works, and to learn how to clearly communicate with native speakers. The book teachers common vocabulary and grammar patterns, not high level, native speech.

But, what if you really do want to sound like a native?

Well firstly, you have to consider what kind of native do you want to sound like? In Japan, what language you use can vary enormously depending on your age, your background and your profession.

The difference between formal and informal speech in Japan is much bigger than in English. Understanding both formal and informal speech is crucial for getting by in Japan.

Of course, as an earnest beginner you will always be forgiven for using formal or informal language inappropriately at times. That is one reason why being seen as a beginner rather than as a native can be a major advantage.    

Fortunately, the Genki textbook does cover different social situations, from the ultra-polite keigo form of speech to informal chatter with friends. Using the book for focused study of these forms can help you begin to understand native interactions.

Genki at Shimaguni

Our private classes use Genki if the student has purchased a copy and wishes to use it for study in lessons. In consultation with the student, we can also provide alternative study material for use in class instead.

We do not require our students to buy the Genki book for group lessons. We produce our own material for group classes that does not refer directly to the textbook. Our material does introduce the same grammar points as the Genki textbook, so a copy of Genki can be a very useful reference for pre and post class study.

Please feel free to leave any comments below. You can also email me (Tom) with any questions at

Once in Hokkaido in Winter

My first and only winter trip to Hokkaido was in January 2012, 10 months after the destructive earthquake and tsunami that had turned life upside down for Japan residents.

Now travellers were finally returning to Japan and I had been given to chance to lead a tour around the far northern island of Hokkaido.

I was very excited about the trip; and to an equal degree terrified about being cold. Hokkaido, like Siberia or the far north of Scotland, has notoriously cold winters. Cherry blossoms don’t bloom until May and it starts snowing in October.

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)

Hokkaido is a unique environment. Long seperated from Honshu by the Blakiston line, the flora, fauna, landscape, climate and culture are all distinct from the rest of Japan.

Most significantly for me, the bears are browner, bigger and much much scarier. On a previous summer visit cycling around the island I had sung like a maniac in broken Japanese to scare them away.

A winter trip though would be a different proposition altogether with no bike and no bears (who were hopefully hibernating) to worry about.

Historically, Hokkaido is also different from Honshu and beyond. Once the home of the ancient independent Ainu culture, Hokkaido later became a frontier and colony of the modern Japanese state. It is now a bit of a tourist playground full of onsen resorts, ski slopes, and trekking routes as well as offering dishes such as grilled mutton, lavender ice-cream, and curry soup .

The week long trip turned out to be unforgettable, and thanks to air-conditioning, very cosy. The most outstanding memories are of the bizarre ice sculptures at the Snow Festival in Sapporo, the dancing red-crowned cranes in Kushiro, and the Steller sea eagles off the remote Shiretoko peninsula (where bears are friendly with fisherman).

I hope I can go back someday.

Beginner and Intermediate Resource for Reading and Listening

Here are 4 very short stories written in Japanese: 2 for beginners and 2 for upper beginner / intermediate students (about 20-50 sentences each). Click on the story titles for the links.

A little reading each day can improve all aspects of Japanese. Readers can quickly develop a feel for how Japanese is used.

I recommend listening along to the native audio while you read.

Please leave a comment if you find them useful.

あれが何? ARE WA NANI? (What is that?)

The おもしろい (OMOSHIROI/interesting) adentures of 2 cats. The heroine is いもうと(younger sister). She is supported by her おにいさん(ONIISAN/respectful term for older brother). A family of とり(TORI/birds) also play a part.

ちょっと CHOTTO (A little)

The romantic adventures at だいがく (DAIGAKU/Univeristy) of a 21 year old woman called Marina. Her day is full of different uses of the word ちょっと CHOTTO (A little). Her あさごはん (ASAGOHAN/breakfast) starts with しお(SHIO/salt). Then she is invited out for dates: ぼくとごはんたべませんか (BOKU TO GOHAN TABEMASEN KA?/Won’t you have dinner with me?)

(UPPER BEGINNER) 柴犬ディナちゃん、秋の京都へ行く SHIBAINU DINA-CHAN, AKI NO KYOUTO E IKU (A Shiba dog called Dina heads to Kyoto in Autumn)

A virtual tour of Kyoto in autumn through the eyes and ears of a shiba dog from Russia. Dina visits her 旅館 RYOKAN (traditional Japanese inn) after a long flight. In a busy day exploring the best of autum Kyoto, she sees a 舞妓 MAIKO (apprentice geisha), and visits one of the most famous sights in Kyoto, 清水寺 KIYOMIZU-DERA (Kiyomizu temple). 

(INTERMEDIATE) 吉四六さんの話 KICCHOMU-SAN NO HANASHI (The tale of Kicchomu)

Kicchomu was a joker who lived in the early 17th century in what is now Oita prefecture in eastern Kyushu. This story is when about when he is working on a river-crossing 船 FUNE (boat). A travelling 侍 SAMURAI appears armed with a 刀 KATANA (sword). There is a dispute over the crossing fee of 8文 HACHI-MON (8 Mon coins/aprroximately 200 yen). The story finishes with a funny twist.

10 Japan Quiz Questions

10 questions on Japan.

A mix of challenging and relatively easy questions. If you don’t know, have a guess.

If you get 5 or more, you are doing very well.

The answers are at the bottom.

  1. Which Studio Ghibli film is based on Han’s Christian Andersen’s fantasy The Little Mermaid?
  2. What colour is the GO sign on Japanese traffic lights?
  3. What are the 3 sacred items of the Imperial Family?
  4. What are the 5 colours of traditional Japanese food?
  5. In Japan, what bird is the voice of authority?
  6. Put this haiku by Buson in the correct order: Desperately bushes to an cloudburst cling sparrows evening trembling
  7. According to the proverb, what small Japanese bird never forgets to dance?
  8. The Cloud Surpassing Pavilion was built in Tokyo in 1890 under the supervision of a British engineer. It contained Japan’s first what?
  9. Early June in the old Japanese calendar is known as the KAMAKIRI birth season. The KAMAKIRI is a green insect that will eat it’s own mate. What is it called in English?
  10. Why do sumo wrestlers stamp on the ground inside the ring?


  1. Ponyo
  2. Green (the bluest allowed shade of green)
  3. Sword, jewel and a mirror
  4. Red, yellow, green, black and white
  5. The crane
  6. An evening cloudburst / sparrows cling desperately / to trembling bushes
  7. The sparrow 雀百まで踊り忘れず
  8. Elevator (it broke after 6 months)
  9. Praying mantis
  10. To expel evil

The questions were used in the Brighton Japan Club online quiz last Saturday.

Join the group online to find out more about our online and face to face events

Brighton Japan Club

Brighton, GB
1,626 Brighton Japan Club Members

For people in the Sussex area with an  interest in Japan. We meet up regularly, go on day-trips together, eat noodles together, and even occasionally sit in the park drinking …

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Elementary French 🇫🇷 初級フランス語

Wednesday, Jun 10, 2020, 8:30 PM
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