Spirited Away: 17 Years Later

What was your first anime? Now, that’s a great first date question.

Mine was Spirited Away. I rented the DVD from the local videostore in Nagoya anxious to see what all the fuss was about.

And I wanted to test out my progress in Japanese after a year of learning.

All I can really remember of the film is disappointment. Nobody was saying KONNICHI WA or OHAYOU GOZAIMASU. I was well out of my depth.

Watching it again 17 years later, I can understand a lot more Japanese, but the plot remained in a foreign language.

In the film, coal soot has a soul. Paper aeroplanes have will power. Even the street lantern has manners. Am I missing something on my trips to Japan?

And where are all the good guys in cowboy hats?

Actually, the anime is about a good girl – called Chihiro. And she is a very good girl, blessed with a natural sense of right and wrong. A child fighting battles the greedy adults can’t see – an animated Greta Thunberg.

We need more children like her.

A normal film could not be as pretty as this. Real life is too ugly, too many backgrounds already spoiled.

Maybe that’s what makes anime so appealing, all the crap of everyday life can be excluded.

It has certainly inspired me to watch more. Any suggestions?

An oyaji’s tips for the JLPT exam

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is only 2 and a half months away. Shimaguni has had students who have taken or are taking N2, N3, N4 and N5 this year.

When I took the exams which was just before colour television was invented, the exam was slightly different. The principles remain the same however. I have added here a few tips from a veteran of JLPT wars. Please share any tips of your own.

For learning the Kanji and Vocabulary

Buy, or even better, make your own set of flashcards. 

Focus on each kanji individually; write it out to help you remember what it looks like and study it is used in sentences.

Mix up intensive study sessions with short mini tests while you are at the bus stop/in the coffee queue/waiting for Southern train to move.

Read sentences out loud. This forces you to focus on the pronunciation. Questions may test how a kanji is read as KO, KKO or KOU. 

Use kanji learning apps such as Kanji Study (grey) and WANKIKANI

How to cope with the listening and reading sections

  • Reading questions are often full of irrelevant detail which you don’t need to get the answer. Focus on exactly what the question is asking. Scan for key words.
  • You don’t need to read everything
  • You do need to listen to everything (but you don’t need to understand everything)
  • Listening and reading questions in particular are designed to trick you. If it seems too easy, you maybe missing something.

General Tips

Use Apps, podcasts and Youtube videos such as “JLPT Practice N5-N1

Do practice exams. You can downloads exam material on JLPTSensei. Practice exams are the best way of correctly anticipating what questions you will  get. (If you get questions wrong, find out why. Make flashcards to help you remember in future).

Use materials on websites such as Nihongoichiban and JLPTBootcamp. Podcasts and Youtube videos by Nihongo no Mori also provide ready listening and learning material

Reading is a proven method for improving grammar and vocabulary. Join the Shimaguni library! (£10 for 6 months. You can borrow 2 books at a time)

Find a study buddy. Great for motivation and picking up tips. How do I find one? Come to Brighton Japan Club……

Guest post: A mini guide to Brighton in Japanese:

Yuki, a Japanese student who has been living in Brighton for one year, has kindly written a post for us in Japanese. Japanese visitors to Brighton may find useful information here. Japanese learners can test your Japanese skills by trying to read this article. For non-Japanese speakers, there will be a more relevant post for you next time!

The article lists answers to 4 questions:

1) What’s your favourite place in Brighton? 2) What problems have you had? 3) What should new people be aware of? 4) Where to go when you miss Japanese food?

Africa House
London Road にあるAfrica houseというカフェが好きです!
フェを使うことがあります。その中でも一番のお気に入りはAfrica houseです!
The Quad Salon
Clock Towerの近くにあるThe Quad Salonという床屋さんには日本人の美容師さんがいます。ブライトンにも長くおられるとても気さくな方で、腕もピカイチです!予約
Seven Sisters
ハリーポッターの映画でも使われたことがある(らしい)Seven Sistersという景勝地へは、バスや電車で1時間くらいで行くことができます。最寄り駅に到着してからは、ハイキングコースを30分ほどたどると、なかなか日本にはないような美しい景

🍺 Sumimasen, dos cervezas kudasai

Somehow I am in Spain. I don’t quite know how I got here. In between spells of fitful sleep and bizarre dreams, I have found myself in the middle of boiling hot Madrid, about to start a 10 day walking holiday with 4 Japanese friends.

I nearly didn’t arrive at all. Never underestimate the capacity of the British rail network to go wrong. Just because a train leaves Brighton on time – at 5am, it doesn’t mean it won’t stop twenty minutes later because the tunnel up ahead has flooded. Fortunately, a kindly commuter took pity on me and two other stranded passengers and gave us a lift to Gatwick just in time for the flight.

Over the next week I will miss Brighton and all the familiar comforts of home. But I am excited by this new adventure. The biggest challenge will be the language.

When I first went to Spain after 2 years of living in Japan, I spent a month starting sentences with すみません。I have already spoken Japanese a couple of times to waiters and to the teacher who gave me a couple of online lessons.

Perhaps I should just embrace the confusion. Let the listener deal with what I throw at them. Surely they can work out just by looking at me that I would like an empanada (a Spanish pasty) and a cold beer. Words are just decoration.

Puerta Del Sol in Madrid

A North Laine walking tour: exercising the mind and body

On Friday evening, I organised a guided walk around the North Laine for members of Japan Club. I had appointed myself as guide, which led to lots of last minute fumbling through reference books for scraps of information.

In the early evening sunshine, 10 of us strolled around the quiet commercial and residential streets of the North Laine.

I tried to balance the walk with some guidance in Japanese and English while at the same time allowing the group to take an active part by share their own knowledge.

( Tom-san, is that because you don’t have enough knowledge yourself?)

“Er, yes maybe.”

After not guiding people in front of a bus, my most important job on the tour was explaining the different definitions of Laine and Lane. My determination to do this has been repeated readings of the brilliantly pedantic sign on Ju-Ju clothes shop.

In a sentence, the Laine means a field, and lane means a narrow road.

Apparently there were once 5 Laines in Brighton. Now we just have the North Laine.

We strolled around the the sun-soaked Pavilion Gardens, went up to Orange Row, the world’s first Body Shop on Kensington Gardens, Japan Town on Sydney Street and finished at the Kissing Coppers, Banksy’s famous artwork sprayed onto the outside of the Prince Albert pub.

Heading into Orange Row, Britain’s worst slum……… the 1840’s

The mental benefits of walking are often more than the physical ones, especially when in a group. I felt great after it, perhaps because for once my mind was forced to focus on what I was doing, rather than fretting about what I should be doing.

Not being distracted by ever-present technology was also a nice change.

The walk has energised me enough to plan a few others. We are going to Devil’s Dyke on July 6th, , Lewes on and the Lanes on July 12th, and Lewes on July 19th.

Please join us if you can.

甘いものはよく食べます I often eat sweet things

The confession came at the end of a Monday night Talktime Japanese event. Our class had been conducting a 健康アンケート(Kenkou Ankehto・Health survey), asking each other questions about each other’s diet and exercise. Up until then, I had been scoring highly. Just look at my responses:

野菜をよく食べます (YASAI O YOKU TABEMASU / I often eat vegetables).

まいにち運動します(MAINICHI UNDOU SHIMASU / I exercise everyday).

パンはあまり食べません (PAN WA AMARI TABEMASEN/ I don’t often eat bread).

In the end, a student asked me ”甘いものをよく食べますか” (AMAIMONO O YOKU TABEMASU KA?Do you often eat sweet things?) and the game was sup. I was partly pleased that she had asked question and used the new vocabulary so well, but also disappointed I had to confess to my secret sugar cravings.

I went home questioning my way of living as well as considering my way of teaching. I will have to cut down the 甘いもの (sweet things) in case I get asked again.

Overall though, it was great to have an extended period of language practice with the focus on exchanges of meaning, and not just the structure of sentences.

Preparing and carrying out the surveys, our students learnt useful food words and health-related vocabulary such as 砂糖 (SATOU/sugar), 運動(UNDOU/exercise), 体にいい(KARADA NI II (good for you/your body), 人参 (NINJIN/carrot)、玉ねぎ(TAMANEGI/onion)、かぼちゃ(KABOCHA/pumpkin). And by repeating the survey with different partners, students could improve their fluency and familiarity with the language.

We also realised how some common concepts in English don’t easily translate into Japanese. For example, how can you say brown bread in Japanese? According to one dictionary it’s 黒パン(KURO-PAN/literally black bread). Other dictionaries just list a long explanation of how it is made.

And we did not even get to touch on the almost criminal omission of crusts from sandwiches in Japan.

We hope you can join us at the next Talktime Japanese. We have events planned for Beginners for the next 2 Mondays at 7:15.

The North Laine – a mini guide : Part 1: 5 Shops on Sydney Street

This guide is aimed at Japan-lovers and Japanese visitors to Brighton.

First of all, what is the North Laine?

The North Laine is a block of commercial and residential streets preserved since 1977 for its historic importance.

Where is it? The North Laine is between Brighton Pavilion and Brighton Train Station.

What does Laine mean? And, shouldn’t it be lane?

The word Laine is an old word for field – it has no connection whatsoever with the much older area, The Lanes which are located on the seaside of the Pavilion. If you think it is confusing now, remember at one point, the North Laine was one of just 5 Laines in Brighton including a West Laine and an East Laine.

In this post, I will introduce 5 selected shops on Sydney Street one of the North Laine’s most loved and most well-known streets.

KO Bonsai:  Bonsai, the art of growing trees or shrubs in a pot, has been practiced in Japan for over 1,000 years which is almost exactly 1,000 years longer than it’s been in Brighton. When this bonsai store opened in 1990, the owner – former actor Eric Danot, was warned by neighbouring traders he’d go bust within 6 weeks. Almost 30 years, later KO Bonsai is still going strong as one of the North Laine’s most inspiring and well-run independent businesses.

Dave’s Comics: This shop is a North Laine treasure, and not only for employing Brighton Japan Club members and Shimaguni students. You can get plenty of Japanese manga here written in English such as Tokyo Ghoul, Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, as well as guides to writing your own manga. Reading manga in English might be useful if you or your friends are studying English as well.

Pen to Paper: Stationery store  Second only to heated toilet seats, the thing I miss most about Japan is premium stationery. This lovely little store helps alleviate my suffering.  Pop in to pick up moleskine journals, colourful cards of unique Brighton scenery as well as ukiyoe (woodblock print) decorated stationery.

Flour Pot Bakery: A great place to chomp down on some proper bread, try some tasty cakes and sit down for a nice cup of coffee. I like to take Japanese friends here as I feel it’s as close to English cuisine as we can get. Japan gave the world raw fish sushi: Britain gave it cheese and pickle sandwiches. The Flour Pot Bakery has 6 stores across the city, the first one opened here on Sydney Street in 2014. It’s a popular spot for locals to pick up breakfast and lunch.

Kito Kito: A Japanese/Hawaiian cuisine inspired lunchtime diner run by the owners of the popular Goemon ramen restaurant on Preston Street. The name Kito Kito comes from the Toyama region and means “fresh” I am pleased to say it was named by a Brighton Japan Club member. I personally recommend their Vegetable Curry for a tasty, healthy and reasonably-priced lunch.  

6 Tips for Learning Japanese

Make Japanese a habit Fit Japanese learning into your daily routine. Flick through flashcards while eating your cornflakes, read the language section of the Japan Times after your cornflakes, download Japanese learning apps for your phone for the morning commute, meet Japanese people and people interested in Japan at the pub (by joining Brighton Japan Club), watch Japanese programs on Netflix before bed.

I should clarify you do not need to eat cornflakes to learn Japanese.

Start small The temptation is to start with translating sentences but it’s more motivating and effective to start by building vocabulary. Nouns are a good place to start. Make a flashcard set on your phone (KEITAI) or on paper (KAMI) for everyday vocabulary.

We naturally learn like this. My 18 month year old nephew has begun learning how to identify things he sees. He has already learnt duck (KAMO), this (KORE) and car (KURUMA). Can you catch him up?

  • I should make clear my nephew is not actually learning Japanese at the moment, despite my best efforts to enroll him in our classes.

Use the best study material It sounds simple, but good learning resources can make so much difference, and some of them don’t cost a penny. For example the free MEMORY HINT app for learning HIRAGANA and KATAKANA gets excellent reviews from our Shimaguni students. If you prefer a book, Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana for Self Study is also very good. IMI WA is an excellent free Japanese-English dictionary app.

Learn the culture Part of learning Japanese is learning about Japanese culture. You can’t do one without the other. Think how have we all learnt the Japanese words all English speakers already know such as sushi, sake, sumo and karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-oh-kay in Japanese).  We see something unusual and we naturally want to know what it’s called: “here’s a duck, there’s a duck, everywhere’s a duck, duck”.

  • I should say my nephew currently identifies all living creatures (including uncles) as ducks. And who am I to correct him.

Speak Japanese I must admit I am quite mad. I talk to myself on a regular basis. I realised a while ago it was the only way to get regular Japanese speaking practice at a pace I was comfortable with.

You can’t assume just because you really want to speak Japanese, there are people crowds of people who are happy to patiently listen. And we do need to practice making the sounds. A vocal workout is genuine exercise.

So start singing along to Japanese pop songs, read aloud from Japanese textbooks and flashcards sets, even try to start thinking aloud in Japanese.

Just don’t do it in the queue at Co-Op. God, that was embarrassing.  

Join a class (group or private – ideally both) Classes provide structure, motivation and confidence. The structure helps you see how much you are improving. The motivation comes from being with other similar level students and from the constructive feedback provided by the teachers. The confidence comes from gaining real experience communicating in Japanese with other students and the teacher.    

If you would like to know about the private Japanese classes at our Brighton school, or our new group class schedule for July 2019 please email

Please let me know if you have any comments about this post.

The beauty of Brighton, burdock and bush warblers

I got back to Brighton on Thursday evening. After a 24 hour flight that took me first from Fukuoka to Tokyo, then an 11 hour flight to Doha (what was I thinking there?), and then 7 hours onto Gatwick, my crumpled body rolled off the plane like the last long-forgotten sock to come out of the laundry basket. Now 48 hours later, I feel much better, a much better standard of sock anyway, although I must admit I miss the warm comforts of the laundry basket..

My last week in Japan was spent in a small guest house on the Kunisaki Peninsula in the north east of Kyushu. In many ways, it was idyllic: cooking my own meals from fresh local vegetables during which I fell in love again with ごぼう(burdock root), being guided by locals at night to see the 蛍 (fireflies) hovering by the rice fields, and each evening falling asleep in a warm futon on a soft tatami mat while listening to the カエル (frog) chorus.

The day times were mostly spent reading about the robot-cat from the future Doraemon, researching burdock smuggling, and strolling around the valley to commune with the ウグイス(bush warbler).

Now if you don’t know what a bush warbler is, it is basically the burdock of the bird kingdom. In other words, it’s the almighty. All hail the uguisu.

At some point every spring when I visit Japan, the ウグイス will stop me in my tracks. I’ve never actually seen one – they are very small and shy, but each time I hear them I feel a gentle joy. Their long, piercing warble is so distinct and arresting they are considered one of the official song birds of Japan.

Their power and influence is infinite. Female announcers employed for their beautiful voices are called ウグイス嬢 (UGUISUーJOU Bush warbler girls). Their sacred white turds are smeared onto the faces of geisha and apparently even David Beckham. In the Edo era, powerful samurai had bush warblers kept in cages and took them on picnics just so they could enjoy hearing the warble while they sipped their sake.

Hearing the bush warbler, then trying to warble back to it is when I feel closest to Japan. And actually, warbling is much easier than Japanese, nowhere near as much vocabulary needed and not one kanji to learn. If you are off to Japan soon, I recommend you have a wander in the woods, listen for the call of the uguisu, and then have a warble back.

Some time-out in Takamatsu

I’ve been coming to Japan either as a visitor or resident for nearly 20 years now. On most trips, I go to the same places, stay at the same hotels and walk the same hikes. Japan is a huge country though, and I always want to see more. Each time I come here, I always try to visit somewhere new, to be a wide-eyed tourist again.

On this trip I took a day off to explore Takamatsu, the main city on north coast of Shikoku, in the middle of the Inland Sea. With a population of less than half a million, Takamatsu is small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to spend a few days, especially if you take day trips to the nearby islands like the ‘art-island’ Naoshima.

In the space of a morning, I visited Takamatsu’s famous garden, climbed its famous hill and ate its famous lunch.

Japanese gardens rarely disappoint. From small private gardens such as Nomura in Kanazawa and Gio-ji in Kyoto, to large stroll gardens from the former Daimyo estates such as Kiyokawa and garden. The best gardens have a magical calming power.

Ritsurin garden in Takamatsu is one of the best. Set against the side of a forested-hill, I strolled for an hour alongside bamboo-lined streams and around pine-ringed lakes following birds, photographing flowers and enjoying every moment of the soothing surroundings.  

Open from sunrise, if you go early enough, it feels like you have the whole place to yourself.

Leaving the serenity of the garden, I took a ride on the historic Kotoden Electric Railroad, a 100 year old line built to carry commuters and worshippers to Kotohira Shrine. My journey took me a the foot of Yashima 屋島 (Rooftop-island).  

From the station, a steep 40 minute climb through the woods took me to Temple 84 of the 88 temples on the 1,400km long Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage. Stop at the top for amazing views of the Inland Sea, and for stories of ancient battles fought here, including the tale of Yoshitsune, the 12th century samurai warrior who famously dropped his bow in the sea in the middle of the Battle of Yashima.

An English sign at the temple also introduced me to a Shrine worshipping Tasaburo,  who apparently is “respected as the general head of Badgers in Shikoku”. It was an honour to meet his spirit.

Takamatsu is famous for うどん udon (thick, wheat flour) noodles, a bit like Brighton is famous for fish and chips but on a much bigger scale.  Udon is so popular and emblematic that udon maps are available at Tourist Information, udon taxis can take you to the best udon joints, and the airport even has a tap serving free udon dashi (broth).

Using my udon map for guidance, I headed to Mendokoro Wataya, joining a fast-moving lunchtime queue of 30-40 office-workers. As a セルフ self-service restaurant, there is no need to wait for service. Diners queue up, choose their own broth and toppings, pay for it, find somewhere to sit and eat it and return their tray before some tourists have decided where to hang their coat.

It was cheap, tasty and a real experience shared with dozens of locals. The communal atmosphere and wide open seating made it feel like a school canteen. I’ve never experienced anything like it on the mainland of Honshu, and it helped turn me into a wide-eyed tourist again.