Mosquitoes, kanji, and Shiga

蚊にたくさん刺されました。 (I got a lot of mosquito bites.)  I don’t get eaten by bugs in the US, but in Japan?  Maro-san, my lab buddy, is also getting eaten alive.  I’m practicing my Japanese by joking how Maro might not have plans for lunch, but the mosquitoes do (eating Maro).  美味しいですね!  (Tasty!)

Speaking of tasty, the best way to short-circuit the brain of my Japanese labmates?  Tell them you like fermented soybean sushi:
“Sondy-san, what sort of sushi do you like?”
“Mmm, nattō is good.”
“What?!  Nattō?!  Honto desu ka?”  (Really?)
“Honto desu yo!”  (It’s the truth, with extra emphasis!)

Spoken Japanese is remaining difficult: the parts of this language that I can actually use I learned from the Pimsleur CDs from the Marin County Library.  Repetition, constant drilling, and structure helped tremendously.  Conjugating anything, whether verbs or adjectives, on my own is still really hard.  Particles remain a bit of a mystery.  Anyone want to mail me a workbook or Audible credits so I can download the rest of the Pimsleur lessons?

However, reading Japanese, especially kanji, is a little easier now that I’ve discovered two features of the Kotoba! iPhone app.  Not only does Kotoba! have a Japanese-English dictionary that accepts input in kana or Roman characters; not only does it work without an Internet connection (super important); not only does it show you stroke order for kanji… Kotoba! lets you look up kanji without knowing how it’s read.

What?!  (Or, Vaaat vaat VAAAT? as Maro-san often exclaims.)  Using either the Traditional Chinese keyboard, or the SKIP method, I can sit on the bus and decipher ads to my heart’s content without bothering anyone around me.  (Okay, occasionally I bug Maro-san or Tatsuya-san for a stroke count, but in general I’m gaining independence in my ability to read Japanese.)

First off, the SKIP classification is amazing: it lets you look up kanji based on shape and stroke, which is incredibly useful for me.  Let’s take 蚊, mosquito, which looks like two figures side-by-side.  With SKIP, I select Left-Right pattern, then guess at the number of strokes in the leftmost figure (six).

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Hello from Kokubunji, Tokyo, Japan!

A few days after graduation, I wandered into the Japan office of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI).  I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of the meeting, but a few weeks later I received an email from an aerodynamics researcher at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA, sort of the Japanese equivalent to NASA) offering me a six-week unpaid internship outside of Tōkyō.  I’ll be working on a project that has the ultimate goal of preventing icing on airplanes,which means doing more “fundamental research” into supercold water and luminescent coatings.  MISTI generously offered to cover airfare and a small stipend for living; my mom’s friend Sayoko Kinoshita arranged for me to stay with her friend Takako a few train stops away from the JAXA office; and I suddenly found myself trying to read subway signs in Tōkyō and wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into for a month and a half.

Sayoko picked me up at the Haneda airport at 5 am on Thursday when I arrived, then dropped me off at Tōkyō Station so I wouldn’t have to switch trains twice while hauling bags laden with gifts and food.  The train system here is easy to navigate for us gajin with limited Japanese reading comprehension: stops are announced in Japanese and English, and the signs are in kanji, hiragana, and English.  Reading hiragana, the Japanese syllabary for native words, as well as katakana, the syllabary for words of foreign origin, makes life a lot easier around here. Kanji, on the other hand?  My goal is to learn one or two per day in terms of reading and writing, and maybe even the stroke order.

Takako picked me up in her car and we drove to her home in Fujimoto, a neighborhood of Kokubunji City, which is part of the Tōkyō prefecture.  The streets are narrow and there are trees everywhere: persimmon, oranges, magnolia, loquat, apple… it’s astoundingly verdant and leafy compared to the dry expanses of Northern California and the Middle East.  Alas, figs (and just about most things) are four times more expensive here than they are in Jerusalem or San Francisco or Boston.

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