Cycling in the rain back to Tane

On the way back to Tane from Mie-ken, I accidentally stayed on one train too long, missing my transfer point. Where was the next stop?  About fifteen minutes down the line at tiny mountain town with the smallest train “station” I’d ever seen. Lacking a vending machine, a proper bathroom, and anyone on duty, it sported benches and a box to collect fares.

Tiny train station

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Samurai, Ninja, the 48 Waterfalls of Akame, and a long-voweled monster

A brief preview of what’s to come…

Waterfall with sunlight, Akame 48 Waterfalls

What’s more scary than double consonants in Japanese?  Long vowels.  Shorten a long vowel accidentally and you’re calling someone “devil” and not “older brother”, or worse.  Sometimes I feel like the samurai Hanagami Danjo no jo Arakage fighting off a gigantic salamander when it comes to wrestling Japanese vowels.

The samurai Hanagami Danjo no jo Arakage in Izumo stabbing a giant salamander with his short sword, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Tane, part I: Rice Fields and Shinkansen

Early last week, I was finally added to the email list of MIT interns in Japan last summer, and so I sent out an introduction email. The first person to email me back was Ira Winder, inviting me to an MIT alumni-intern retreat in a rural town called Tane in the Shiga Prefecture. I had no idea what it would entail, but I said yes and went about looking into Shinkansen tickets.

On the trip down to Shiga last Friday, I wound up sitting next to four MIT alums (plus someone’s brother visiting from Spain), eating Shinkansen bento (ekiben), and talking in the fastest English (and Spanish) I’d spoken in a week! All quite the change from working with unpaid master’s students, homemade bento, and speaking English slowly, without adjectives or adverbs.

Shinkansen bento
Travel by Shinkansen, while totemo takai, is brilliant. Hop on in Tokyo and arrive in Mibara, 266 miles away, in only two hours and 16 minutes. (Google Maps says the drive takes about five and a half hours.) Granted, this trip cost approximately 14,000円 for a reserved seat… not feasible in California, regardless of exchange rate.  The Shinkansen is amazingly precise: trains can be spaced as little as three minutes apart.

We spent a lot of the trip along the coast, seeing islands and green hills. The views of the Enshu-nada, while generally obscured by power lines, were beautiful.

Islands
After transferring from the Shinkansen to a local train at Mibara, we arrived in Kawake on the shores of Lake Biwa.

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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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Hebrew via cereal boxes

I took Spanish in high school, and recently I’ve been teaching myself a little Japanese (written Hiragana and some common spoken phrases). Arabic and Hebrew, however, seem scary—both appear to be a series of squiggles that all look the same! Hebrew is written in about five or six different fonts, several of which (the handwriting one in particular) look nothing the same. With Hebrew, however, you 23 letters and vowels generally thrown out the window—how hard can the language be?

I’ve learned a few spoken words of Hebrew so far (slicha = excuse me/sorry; toda (raba) = thank you (very much); be’vakasha = please; le’hitra’ot = see you later; tov = good; ken = yes; lo = no; sababa = awesome; lilah = night; boker = morning; hamesh = five; nana = mint; batata = sweet potato), but thankfully most everyone speaks English (Anglit) at the grocery store, which makes getting 500 g of ground turkey reatively easy. When it comes to reading, I can recognize roughly four random sounds so far in Hebrew: alef (א), reish (ר), shin (ש), and zayin (ז; relevant in some interesting slang).

Tonight, Business Ben came in with a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, labeled in a mix of English and Hebrew. The bottom of the box looked somewhat like this:

Shrek in Hebrew

My first reaction was, “That letter that makes the sound ‘s’ has little ogre horns on it. Cute!” Second thought: “I think that next sound is an ‘r’.” Third: “That must say, ‘Shrek’!” Anna confirmed that indeed the final letter makes a “k” sound, and there you have it.

Our teaching assistants are teaching me food words in Arabic, so perhaps grocery store literacy for East Jerusalem will not be far behind. Unfortunately, MEET has an English-only policy, which means I can’t ask the students to teach me their favorite words in either Arabic or Hebrew until the summer ends. Now if only my suitemates would bring home cereal boxes labeled in Arabic!