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.


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.

Coming to our Summer Sushi Workshop?

I am flying back to Brighton next week from Fukuoka. I will be sad to leave Japan, especially as I wasn’t able to see as many people as I had planned this time, but the consolation is there is so much to look forward to in Brighton this summer.

First of all, on June 9th we have the summer Sushi Workshop. This is a repeat of a popular event we have run a few times in the past. Our teacher will be Hide-san, the manager of Kantenya, the Japanese food store near Brighton station.

Sushi is a perfect food for a British summer, when hopefully it is hot, and attendees will appreciate most the cool rice. Cucumber could be the most popular topping.

But on an online poll of favourite sushi toppings we are running, natto (fermented soybeans) is a surprising leader. Have you tried natto before? If not, you can buy it at Kantenya!

The workshop is a great chance to learn a new skill, meet new people, and make yourself a healthy and tasty lunch. If you enjoy it enough, you’ll have the skills to run your own sushi party in the future.

We hope to see you there.

If you would like more details on signing up to this event, please email , or join the event online through our Brighton Japan Club Meetup group.

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 for more details!