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.

7 Academic and Career related Reasons for Studying Japanese

Have you ever considered learning Japanese? I know its crossed my mind a few times. For me I love meeting new people and making friends from different cultures. The Japanese culture is certainly one I’ve grown to respect and love over many years since I was a child. If I could recommend learning a language Japanese is certainly a language worth learning.

Last time I wrote about 7 Fun Reasons, if you have not read it take a look.


This time I’ll be looking at the top Academic and career related Reasons for Studying Japanese.

1.  It can help you academically in School

Studies have shown that children who learn a complex foreign language, especially at a young age, are better off in terms of development and learning other school subjects.  When you are younger it is easier to learn a foreign language so its best to start of early.

2.  Make new friends in Class

Studying languages at a school like Shimaguni allows you to make a new set of friends outside of school that have the same interest at you. This will make your more likely to continue to study and older students often meet up outside of class and also join the Brighton Japan Cub for Meetups.

3. Strengthen Your Job or University Application

Most UK students learn Spanish, French or German.  But having Japanese on a Job Application or University application can get you some important extra attention and make you stand out from the norm. It shows you are committed and Serious to studying something extra outside of work and school.

4.  Because Japan is Important

Japan is the third largest economy in the world and nowadays, every career involves an international aspect, and every international career involves Japan in some way especially if your working in the technology sector. Being fluent in Japanese and English is a very powerful combination and goes a long way to enhancing your career opportunities.

5.   Improve understanding

Whatever your background, learning Japanese will make you a better person.  It helps to open your eyes to the larger world around us makes us and help to make you a more tolerant and thoughtful person.  You will forever perceive the world in a different, more positive way.

6.   Learning Japanese opens the door to other Languages

While the cultures and languages different in many ways. They do share some similarities when it comes to languages. Learning one of their languages makes learning one of the others a lot easier because of similar grammar structure, politeness rules, and borrow vocabulary. It helps you to improve

7.   It could help you study abroad

Japanese schools have high standards of learning at all levels of education. If you’re interested in studying abroad, Japan is a good place to go.

However studying in a different country is very different and you should ensure that you know the local language very well

There are three Japanese “alphabets” (hiragana, katakana and kanji) that you should familarise yourself with.

As you can see, the reasons behind choosing to learn Japanese are varied. However, it can be a rewarding experience If your interested in learning more about the language, why not contact Shimaguni Language School for more information on lessons if your in the Brighton area of the UK or even around Sussex. If your looking for friends and to learn more about Japanese culture. Why not join us at the Brighton Japan Club.

7 Fun reasons to study Japanese

Have you ever considered learning Japanese? I know it’s crossed my mind a few times. For me I love meeting new people and making friends from different cultures. The Japanese culture is certainly one I’ve grown to respect and love over many years since I was a child. If I could recommend learning a language Japanese is certainly a language worth learning.


Why you may ask? Well let me take you through my top 7 Fun reasons for studying Japanese.

1. Visiting Japan

One day you may want to visit Japan, if you are into Anime, the culture or the food its definitely worth picking up a little of the local language before you visit the place. Its worth learning some key phrases to help you out. Many people do tend to like to self teach themselves or learn online but I think that sometimes you cant beat having a real teacher.

2. You’re a Video Gamer, Anime Fan or Manga reader

I fall in all three in this category. I find that more and more there are new Japanese games coming out, or really good animes and Manga. Unless you want to spend months or even years waiting for it to get translated its better to learn the language so you can read listen and watch things as they are meant to be without questionable dubbing or translations. Also you tend to find that the translated or Dubbed versions are vastly different from how the video game, anime or manga was. A good example would be Yu-gi-oh, it was very different from what we got here.

3. You’re an internet User

This is kind of associated my previous point but quite often if you look something up on the internet, especially if your visiting somewhere the website may appear in another language first. Quite often with Japanese websites your browser wont default to English (if that’s an option). So its really useful. Some friends of mind when in Japan used Naver for directions, restaurant reviews, maps and blogs so it maybe useful for you to know to help you get round and organise your trip if you like to explore outside of package holidays.

4. Restaurant and Bars

Quite often you may find that the Japanese Bar/Restaurant  you visit is actually Japanese owned. This would be a perfect opportunity to converse and order your meal and drink in Japanese. It also helps when your travelling overseas in Japan and want to eat and drink.

5. J-Pop

Ok, if you are like me, you probably sing the intro of your favourite Anime (Dragon Ball Z anyone). Well in recent years, J-Pop has exploded as a cultural phenomenon worldwide thanks to video games and characters like Hatsune Miku a Vocaloid

Baby Metal bands are popping up everywhere, Kawaii culture is popular so it’s a good idea to learn Japanese to understand the music.

6. Japanese friends or family

The world is getting smaller and smaller, you might find your relative is married to someone from Japan, or you might make Japanese friends online or a club like Brighton Japan Club.

This would be a good opportunity to learn Japanese you can practice and improve and also impress your Japanese friend and show them how dedicated you are to the friendship and how much you want to understand them better.

7. Japanese Culture is cool

Japan is an incredible country and full of rich culture and history. They have summer festivals with a cultural meaning, the Tanabata festival, the art, the fashion and everything else. Sure it’s a big reason and pretty broad but if you want to understand more about the culture and travel there the best way to start is through learning about the language and through that the history.

Hopefully you liked my top 7 Fun reasons to study Japanese. Next time Ill take a look at reasons why you should study Japanese in a academic and job related context.

If your interested in learning more about the language, why not contact Shimaguni Language School for more information on lessons if your in the Brighton area of the UK or even around Sussex. If your looking for friends and to learn more about Japanese culture. Why not join us at the Brighton Japan Club.

Woodingdean, Ovingdean, Rottingdean – The Great 3 Deans Journey

Recently I attended a walk with the Brighton Japan Club across the 3 Deans outside of Brighton. This was better know as Woodingdean, Ovingdean and Rottingdean. It was a great day for a walk it was sunny with temperatures floating near 20 degrees Celsius.

It was the second time I had done this walk and it was one of my favourites as the last time I did this walk I struck up some surprising strong friendships which I still hold dearly to this day.

If your looking for a wonderful day out with this club and firm friendships, you know where to come.

Firstly you may ask what is Brighton Japan Club?

For those that don’t know Brighton Japan Club is a club set up by Tom Orsman who is a language teacher from Shinmaguni Language School who specialises in teaching Japanese to beginners all the way to advance learners.

This club was created for people in the Sussex area whom have an interest in Japan (and it’s okay if you don’t speak Japanese) and would like to go on fun meetings and trips with others that share a similar interest and are looking to make friends.

The Adventure begins

It started of with all of us waiting at Bus Stop H, where we all gathered and waited for the bus. We had about 8 minutes before it arrived at 11.08am in the Morning.

It was a good opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another as there were a lot of new attendees and of course catch up with some old friends that I made over a year ago and a from Japanese yoga classes that I had done previously.

The bus trip was fun as the Japan Club got the entire top floor which was good and the bus ride from Churchill Square to the Woodingdean Downs Hotel allowed us to chat with one another and discuss our interests with one another and learn where Japanese attendees to the Club were from and what they were studying and learn more about life in Japan.

Once we arrived at the Woodingdean Downs Hotel it was a case of crossing a busy road where we then followed a flat track to Ovingdean. On the journey we stopped to try Blackberries. I don’t think they were ripe yet.

We also spotted some rare butterflies which were endangered in the UK.

Once we arrived in Ovingdean we spotted a lot of red cars on a small road that had to be shared with Pedestrians like us too. It was also a case of spot the Japanese car as the first one we saw was a Mazda.

Shortly we arrived at a Church called St. Wulfran’s Church and stood in awe of a old yew tree.

Japan Club was here 🙂

St Wulfran’s Church is a interesting place as it was dedicated to the 7th-century French archbishop Wulfran of Sens, is an Anglican church in Ovingdean, a rural village now within the English city of Brighton and Hove. Parts of the structure date from the early 12th century, and the church is listed at Grade I, a designation used for buildings “of outstanding architectural or historic interest”. It had a interesting ceiling and before we left Tom signed the visitor book on behalf of Brighton Japan Club.

After exploring the grounds for a bit we headed out for a walk 1-2km uphill past a windmill with views of the sea and Brighton. This land was now protected and used for conservation whereas a few years ago it was a golf course. Glad to know its protected now.

A lovely group photo

After some photos at the windmill we walked down to explore the old village of Rottingdean stopping at the esteemed Kipling Gardens and visiting the art gallery.

Some of use went to the pub, others to the beach in Rottingdean for lunch and had interesting talks about a variety of things such as Seaweed and its uses and Gordon Ramsey.

Afterwards for some it was a nice walk back to Brighton along the undercliff.

Walking Like Heros back to Brighton

If you like the sound of this, why not join us a Brighton Japan Club for an adventure, there are a variety of different activities to join so feel free to choose anyone you want to attend. And if your interested in learning more about the language, why not contact Shimaguni Language School for more information on lessons.

Brighton Japan Club Adventure to Devil’s Dyke

Recently I attended a walk with the Brighton Japan Club to a wonderful place in the countryside called the Devils Dyke which is just outside of Brighton on the South Downs. I had a wonderful day out with this club and thought I would write about this particular adventure.

Firstly you may ask what is Brighton Japan Club?

Brighton Japan Club is a club set up by Tom Orsman who is a language teacher from Shimaguni Language School who specialises in teaching Japanese to beginners all the way to advanced learners.

This club was created for people in the Sussex area who have an interest in Japan (and it’s ok if you don’t speak Japanese) and would like to go on fun meetings and trips with others that share a similar interest and are looking to make friends.

Tell me more about Devils Dyke.

The View of Devils Dyke is Beautiful

Devils Dyke is a what I would describe has Brighton’s very own grand canyon, its a deep 100m/300ft valley based in the South Downs and continues to be a great tourist attraction and excellent place to walk.

The name is often associated with folklore with regards to the valley being the work of the devil, there is a legend that the devil was digging a trench to allow the sea to flood the many churches in the Weald of Sussex. Supposedly the Devil was disturbed and was unable to complete his task and fled living the trench unfinished

In recent years though around the Victorian era there had been a single track railway, a cable car and a steep grade railway had been present there however by now there is only concrete remains and some exposed rail tracks.

So what was the Day like?

The day started of with all the Japan Club members signed up for this walk meeting at Bus Stop E near Brighton station where we all promptly introduced ourselves and discussed whether we had been there before. For myself and Tom we had been there before.

Once the bus had arrived we seated ourselves for the journey there.
Often I quite enjoy the journey to our destination, it gives a good opportunity for you to chat to other members to see what their interest in Japan is and of course for Japanese members to learn about where they are from, what they are doing in the UK and learn more about Japanese culture.

Once we arrived there we explored the local area which has the Devils Dyke Pub but also so beautiful views with explanations of what we could see.

A Short trek to the Woods to Devils Dyke

Afterwards we took a trek through the woods till we came out on the side of a hill where we were exposed to a lot of plant life and butterflies.

We were joined by another member of Japan Club called Richard whom was a bit of a expert in traversing this land and so followed him and Tom across the hills and through some forest.

During this walk we continued to share stories with each other about, interests, languages the UK and Japan and even Lord of the Rings, we basically figured out we were the Fellowship has we even had the right number.

After a long walk we ended up in the valley and made a short walk where we rested around an area that looked like a campfire had been there.
This rest had been brief has we then made haste and walked to the end of Devils Dyke where we stopped for lunch and allowed us to have further discussions.

This is something that I think is uniquely wonderful to this club is that though we have language exchanges, it can also happen when your out and about. The fact there is varied activities organised by various members adds to the appeal and makes every outing fascinating and an adventure.

To my surprise we continued our adventure in the opposite direction from Devils Dyke to a little place called Fulking which was quite a fair walk away but it was worth it, especially for the scenery and for the pub that was waiting for us at the end. It was well worth the reward.

Bonding at the Pub

This was followed by more opportunities to bond again, though unfortunately after 2 hours of resting we had to make a move to catch the last bus back.

The trek back was tiring especially when most of it was uphill and when we reached the bus stop we all sat down for a rest as we arrived with ample time to spare. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Has a bonus some of us couldn’t resist one more trip to the pub.

If you like the sound of this, why not join us a Brighton Japan Club for an adventure, there are a variety of different activities to join so feel free to choose anyone you want to attend. And if your interested in learning more about the language, why not contact Shimaguni Language School for more information on lessons.


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.