The No-Speed Bicycle

Kyoto is an easy city to get around since it is built on a grid. You can’t really get lost and it is pretty flat, so a jitensha is ideal for getting around. I quickly learned to ride one while carrying an umbrella. In fact, I quite naturally mastered the art of riding with an umbrella and bowing if I passed an acquaintance. It just comes naturally after you’ve been there during a rainy season.

I had a mamachari of course. This is a purely functional bicycle with no speeds, but at least one basket. It was fine in the daytime, but at night it was much harder to pedal because the required light was powered by pedaling. You could switch it off on small streets, but if an omawarisan caught you, you might be fined. At the very least admonished.

The police also ride bikes….

I’d pedal home to Midorogaike from downtown often stopping on the way for a nikuman or ochazuke at a small sunakku that was on my route. I didn’t have a kagi on my bike but it was pretty run down and I never had a bike stolen in Kyoto. Tokyo is another story, though.

Ochazuke – sometimes the pickles are the best part

Just as I’d gotten pretty good at holding an umbrella while I rode, others had honed their own particular bicycle skills. One night I was walking home from the sentō holding my basin and towel in both hands in front of me. I heard a jitensha come up behind me which was nothing new, but darned if this guy didn’t ride past and grab me in the chest! With perfect aim! And he was gone before I could even properly react. I’d been accosted by a chikan!

That’s the only time that happened to me and to be honest, I couldn’t help but slightly admire his excellent aim. WIsh I had reflexes good enough to react, but who would expect such a thing?!

  • jitensha 自転車 bicycle
  • mamachari ママチャリ the kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.
  • omawarisan – お巡りさん police officer
  • nikuman – 肉饅 a kind of dumpling with meat inside
  • ochazuke – お茶漬け a bowl of rice with tea poured over it, usually served with a variety of pickles in Kyoto. It can also have salmon, or other ingredients with it. It’s a great late night snack.
  • sunakku – スナック Okay, you’re looking at it and you think it means snack. And it does… now. But in the 1970s this is what we called a bar. I think it is falling out of favor now, but you can still see signage for older bars using this term.
  • kagi – 鍵 key. Also means lock, so lock and key. Ponder that.
  • sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I’ll write more about that I am sure.
  • chikan -痴漢 pervert. If someone grabs you on the train, you should yell this at the top of your lungs to get attention.

The Ideal Husband

I’d made a best friend during my time working at the restaurant. She was the same age as I was and she spoke some English. We had fun hanging out together. She had been a ryūgakusei in Mexico, proving to me that she was a real maverick since most girls studied abroad in America or England. She was studying to get her tour guide menkyo (a doozy of a test) and wasn’t looking to settle down anytime soon.

Me as a ryūgakusei with my homestay family

However, her parents were of the exact opposite opinion. They thought it was high time she married and they had already put her through a number of omiai meetings.

“How many have you done?” I asked out of curiosity.

“I don’t know. I lost count. Maybe 20?” (!!!)

So, I could see that an omiai wasn’t a done deal and was almost more like a blind date. Keiko certainly was treating them that way.

One day, her parents had had enough. They announced that the next one was for real and she WOULD marry him. Keiko’s response to this was to run away to my geshuku where there was no phone and they couldn’t reach her. But she admitted to me that she was resigned. It was going to happen.

Thanking their parents for arranging the marriage?

It did. Beneath all the rebellion Keiko knew that her parents had her best interests in mind. She told me he looked old enough to be her ojisan and that he was stodgy. But she married him and they are still married to this day with grandchildren now.

There’s a Japanese expression that goes “teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii.” It means that the best husbands are healthy and not around too much. I’m pretty sure that most women my age still hold this to be true.

  • ryūgakusei – 留学生 study abroad student
  • menkyo – 免許 license. You can use this for driver’s license, but there are also licenses for teaching flower arranging, calligraphy etc. Just about anything in Japan seems to require some license or another and the tests are usually quite rigorous.
  • omiai – お見合い arranged marriage. Usually what happens is that photos and written profiles are exchanged and if there is an interest, a meeting is arranged. Better than perhaps?
  • geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
  • ojisan – おじさん uncle
  • teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii – 亭主は元気で留守が良い Teishu =master of the house, genki=healthy, rusu=not home, ii = good. Wa, de, and ga are particles that hold the expression together.

Let’s Stay in Touch

When my daughter became of age to attend daycare, I became acquainted with the municipal hoikuen system. It’s Japan, so you can just bet it was highly organized. And from Day 1 I knew I was going to have a charenji with it despite my oral language abilities.

It was the darned renrakuchō that had to be filled out each and every day. It went back and forth between daycare and home so that we’d all know exactly what was going on with my daughter. Some of it simply involved checking a few boxes, but it asked for details on dinner, breakfast, how long she’d slept, bowel movements (consistencies!), bathing, mood, and health. On their part they’d report back on what she ate, how long she napped, toileting, health and activities or special notes. Thanks to that, I know exactly what my daughter did 35 years ago, today:

April 15th entry

It did not occur to me to write my response in eigo though I often jotted down our meals using English words I thought they would recognize. Nor did it occur to me to foist this off on my daughter’s otōsan. It was a job for mama and I stepped up. But…. dear readers, I did lie sometimes. The thing is, our dinners were not always something I could be proud of. There were a lot of dinners of just yakisoba. I did not think that would pass muster as a proper dinner so I’d enter it as yasai itame, which just sounded better than a noodle dinner. Breakfast also was embarrassing since my daughter wouldn’t eat much. Too many times it was just jūsu and a banana. I imagined other mothers were doing better. But the staff at the hoikuen never said a word.

Renrakuchō were part of my life for many years. When my daughter attended shōgakkō in Tokyo the first graders also had them, at least weekly. My son had one at his Japanese preschool in New Jersey and they continued to be a charenji for me.

Typical no-frills daycare center. My daughter’s daycare would sometimes hose down the courtyard and create a giant mud puddle for playtime!

I imagine this may be all online now or by email. The hobosan put a lot of work into making the covers of the renrakuchō so they now serve as fond omoide for me.

  • hoikuen – 保育園 daycare center
  • charenji – チャレンジchallenge
  • renrakuchō – 連絡帳 a notebook that goes back and forth between institution and parents so that they always know what the child is doing and how they are. Can be very detailed!
  • eigo -英語 English (language)
  • otōsan – お父さん father. This is what a child would call their father, or perhaps Papa.
  • yakisoba – 焼きそば a fried noodle dish that can be kind of junk food.
  • yasai itame – 野菜炒め literally stir-fried vegetables. Considered to be a proper dinner dish, though you’d want to be sure there was also protein involved.
  • jūsu – ジュース juice
  • shōgakkō – 小学校 elementary school. Japanese elementary school goes from Grades 1-6 in most cases. After WW2 the American system of the time was thrust upon them so that they still have three years of junior high and three years of high school.
  • hobosan – 保母さん a daycare worker
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.

There is Nothing to Eat in Tokyo

That was what people would tell me when I said I was thinking of leaving Kyoto to move to Tokyo. I had a few friends there and I was curious to see what it would be like to live there. But the natives of Kyoto repeatedly would tell me that there was nothing good to eat there. In the whole city, I’d ask incredulously? And they’d assure me that was the case. Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous?

It wasn’t just the food. I had been studying kouta and learning to play the shamisen. When I asked my sensei if she could recommend a teacher in Tokyo so that I could continue, she said there weren’t any. Again… in the WHOLE city? Seriously, this rivalry was kind of overplayed. I thought.

Imagine me on my knees like this for an hour-long lesson with a No Mercy teacher. I’d fall over in pain when we finished and I’d try to stand up. She would simply look bemused.

You cannot disregard the differences between these two areas. Tokyo is in Kantō and Kyoto is in Kansai. There are different dialects, different foods, and even different electrical frequencies, i.e. you need a converter for some appliances. To this day.

Nonetheless, I brushed all this off and made the move. And spat out the broth the first time I had soba in Tokyo. It was awful. Shioppoi! It just tasted wrong. It turns out my washoku tastebuds had been formed in Kyoto and that was that. Even after years of living in Tokyo I could not tolerate the way food was seasoned. I wanted to go back to Kyoto and stuff my face with delicious food.

Nishin soba. A dish you will not find in Tokyo

And it wasn’t just the seasoning. During my first summer in Tokyo, I went into a cheap Chinese joint and ordered reimen. I got a blank stare in return. Turns out that you call cold noodles hiyashi chūka in Tokyo. So even the language was a little different.

And my shamisen teacher was correct. There were no teachers for my particular ryū of kouta.

I think I speak a fairly standard Japanese at this point, but put me in the room with some folks from Kyoto and my speech patterns change. Because yokareashikare Kyoto is where I started my life in Japan.

  • kouta – 小唄 literally small song. Short songs that are accompanied by shamisen. Very traditional
  • shamisen – 三味線 three-stringed Japanese instrument
  • Kantō – 関東 the Eastern area of Japan
  • Kansai – 関西 the Western area of Japan
  • soba – 蕎麦 buckwheat noodles
  • shioppoi – 塩っぽい salty. Shio alone is salt.
  • washoku – 和食 Japanese food, i.e. not Western or Chinese
  • reimen – 冷麺 cold Chinese noodles in the Kansai area
  • hiyashi chūka – 冷やし中華 same as above, but this is what they are called in the rest of Japan
  • ryū – 流 style or school, You have different ryū in tea ceremony, karate, flower arranging, etc. People are very loyal to their ryū.
  • yokareashikare – 良かれ悪しかれ “for better or for worse”

Puddles All Over

From the very first summer day that I arrived in Kyoto, I found myself annoyed by all of the puddles I’d come across when walking through the street. Only the really big streets had sidewalks and for some reason, shopkeepers kept throwing buckets of water in front of their shops. Was it really necessary to keep washing the sidewalks?

Keeping it cool

It took awhile before I realized that this was purposeful and deliberate. It turns out that uchimizu it was just a way of dealing with the mushiatsui summer weather. The water would quickly evaporate and cool off the air above it. Or at least that was the theory.

You can’t mess with a Kyoto summer. Kyotoites will tell you that it is because Kyoto is a bonchi. In fact, they will often explain something away by saying “bonchi dakara.” Whatever the reason, summers could be dangerously hot even back then.

Nobody carried water bottles back then or paid for water. Instead you’d take advantage of the jidōhanbaiki that were found everywhere. I quickly learned how to interpret them without being able to read the labels. Of course a picture of an apple meant ringo jūsu, and an orange was orenji jūsu. After determining the type of juice you wanted to look for a % mark. You could find juice in 10%, 30%, 70% etc. Finding a 100% was rare, but as an American that was what I was accustomed to drinking. So I always hoped.

Some of the worst choices in the 1970s

Carrying a small fan and a hankachi was also necessary. I marveled at the Japanese women in suits on the basu. I couldn’t bare to wear stockings or a jacket in this weather.

And though water on the sidewalks was okay, you would never see an open window on the basu if there was even the slightest drizzle outside. And, most basu did not have AC. You simply had to suffer in the sweltering heat.

That was a Kyoto summer and I survived all of mine without any AC and only a small senpūki. Happily it was all before chikyū ondaka.

  • uchimizu – 打ち水 The deliberate sprinkling of water to cool the air. Does it really work? They say that even looking at the water should make you feel cooler….
  • mushiatsui – 蒸し暑い humid, an adjective
  • bonchi dakara – 盆地だから Bonchi means valley and dakara means because. This expression is used fondly by the people of Kyoto to justify anything about the weather.
  • jidōhanbaiki – 自動販売機 vending machine. It’s a mouthfull, isn’t it! Literally automatic selling machine.
  • ringo jūsu – リンゴジュース apple juice
  • orenji jūsu – オレンジジュース orange juice
  • hankachi – ハンカチ handkerchief
  • basu – バス bus
  • senpūki – 扇風機 electric fan. There are other words used for handheld fans depending on the type. I may get into that later.
  • chikyū ondanka – 地球温暖化 Global warming. I had to look this one up because it is a totally new word for me. There may be a better and more popular word….

The Doshisha Girls

After the restaurant owner pulled a yonige and absconded into the night, I gave up waitressing and started to work teaching eikaiwa at a school that a fellow waitress had attended. It was a popular school called REC Kyoto and catered mostly to young women in college. It had deep ties with Doshisha University. It also had a unique cafe style of teaching; small tables filled the room and students could drop by any time and have a twenty minute conversation. We’d go out to the waiting area and pick up 1-3 students of similar levels and work from there. There were textbooks, but we often just conversed.

Me teaching English at a REC seminar in Izu

Of course the first questions were getting to know our students. Ninety percent of the female students seemed to be majoring in English Literature. The rest, perhaps some sort of social science. If they weren’t in school or had graduated they were usually doing kaji tetsudai or hanayome shūgyō, i.e. getting ready for marriage.

I’d often perk up when a student would tell me her club associations. The first time a young woman told me she was manējā of a soccer club, I was duly impressed. This was different! And then I met one that was manējā of a baseball club. Wow! These girls were cooking. And then I asked what a manējā did. It turns out that the manējā of the team did the boys’ laundry. And not much else.

In preparation for marriage many of them were mastering the arts of ikebana, oshūji, chadō and Japanese dance. The marriage was almost always going to be an omiai kekkon. And needless to say, all of these students lived at home with their families, during college and after college. Yes, they were young women of a certain class and they were ubiquitous in Kyoto. I used to look out of the window of the building and watch prospective students enter and immediately know which of them were Doshisha girls. They had a certain look to them.

My study-abroad program had been located on the Doshisha campus, so I myself could be called a Doshisha girl which thrilled the owner of the school. And Doshisha has a strong relationship with Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts where I live now. I suppose I’ve made a bit of a full circle in life….

Doshisha Campus
  • yonige – 夜逃げ literally night running away or absconding into the night. This is, unfortunately, more common in Japan than you can imagine and is usually due to debt or being unable to support one’s family.
  • eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation – which has always been challenging for many Japanese, particularly the ones who are my age.
  • kaji tetsudai – 家事手伝い literally “helping with household work.” Women use it to describe that period when they are not working outside of the home and just sort of waiting to get married. It is probably outdated at this point.
  • hanayome shūgyō – 花嫁修業 the kind of training a young woman does before marrying. It used to be flower arranging, tea ceremony, possibly cooking school or calligraphy. Depends on the family.
  • manējā – マネージャー simply means manager, but if it is a woman manager of a sports team she’s probably just doing their laundry.
  • ikebana – 生花 flower arranging
  • oshūji – お習字 traditional Japanese calligraphy
  • chadō – 茶道 tea ceremony
  • omiai kekkon お見合い結婚 – arranged marriage. This is in contrast to renai kekkon 恋愛結婚 which is a “love marriage.”

Morning Drama

This morning a new asadora started. I’ve been watching them for almost fifty years now and when a new one starts I’m always hopeful that I’ll get hooked on it. It’s a morning ritual for many households.

NHK, which is to Japan like PBS is to America, is the producer of these renzoku fifteen minute dramas. These series started in 1961 and continue to this day. This new asadora is set in Okinawa. They are all set in different locations around Japan and in different time periods. What is interesting to me is that the vast majority of them are based on a onna shujinkō who overcomes different challenges. If I had to guess, perhaps it is because they are aired at 8:00 AM (It used to be 8:15 AM) and they guessed that the audience would be largely female?

Every household in Japan during the 1970s

My first exposure to asadora was during asagohan at my Kyoto homestay in 1976. I didn’t understand more than a word here and there, but since it aired daily (except Sunday) I could sometimes get the gist of it just from watching. It seemed like an excellent language tool and I’ve watched them every chance I get.

The most famous asadora is Oshin. It’s been subtitled and aired all over the world and even been turned into a movie or two. I’ve watched it three times—the first time it aired, again in Rhode Island in 1988 with my giri no okāsan, and then again recently when it was rebroadcast (I have a subscription to Japanese tv.)


In Rhode Island we were able to borrow the whole series on video. My MIL and I cried together as we watched during the last days of my pregnancy and the first days of my son’s life. It was her first trip to America and there she was watching Oshin!

Chimudondon is the 106th asadora. Thanks to the miracle of the internet I can watch it daily and I can also watch reruns of previous asadora. They are well worth seeking out.

  • asadora – 朝ドラ literally morning drama and refers to dramas that are broadcast in the morning (duh)
  • renzoku – 連続 series. So renzoku asadora means “a serialized morning drama”
  • onna shujinkō – 女主人公 onna means woman and shujinkō is hero, so together they mean heroine.
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.
  • Oshin – おしん the morning drama that had everyone in tears. Worth googling for more information. It’s everything.
  • giri no okāsan -義理のお母さん mother-in-law
  • Chimudondon – ちむどんどんthe name of the new asadora that started this morning. This is in the Okinawan dialect. Chimu in this case should be thought of as heart (even if it is closer to liver). Maybe vital organ is a good interpretation. Dondon is onomatopoeic and represents the thumping of the heart. Maybe the right interpretation of it together is “heartbeat.” But the implication is a little more exciting and vivid.

The First Iced Coffee

If April is the time of new beginnings it must be time to learn the prefix “hatsu.” It simply means “first” or “beginning” but I like to use it to mark something seasonal.

My kids have all gotten used to me announcing the “hatsu aisu kōhī.” You could drink it all year round, but it has to be a certain unseasonably warm day in the spring for me to make the call. I mean, doesn’t that make it more special? It’s kind of like taking out your shorts and sleeveless shirts for summer, but when it is one specific item that you look forward to, it really does make it special.

Japanese hatsu include a hatsu sekku, which indicates the first Girl’s Day or Boy’s Day that is celebrated after a baby is born. In my daughter’s case, my neighbor who also had a newborn girl, and I delivered sekihan to our nearby neighbors. Sekihan may also be prepared when a girl gets her first period. There is many a scene in Japanese dorama where sekihan appears at the dinner table and the father puts on a puzzled face and asks what is being celebrated. The mother may give a meaningful look and it will dawn upon the father who will then look at his daughter who will look down in embarrassment but also a bit of pride. I might be describing the scene from the 1960’s. I have no idea how it goes down these days.

Sekihan isn’t one of my favorites and I can’t imagine you’ll ever find it in a Japanese restaurant in America. Since it uses mochigome it isn’t easy to cook and there are catering shops in Japan that will cook it for you.

  • hatsu – 初 first or beginning. Used to modify so many things. There’s hatsukoi 初恋, or first love and hatsumimi 初耳 or “first I’ve heard” which is literally first ear.
  • hatsu aisu kōhī – 初アイスコーヒー first iced coffee. Always an event for me!
  • hatsu sekku – 発節句 first festival. If you’re a boy, it is on May 5 and if you’re a girl it is on March 3.
  • sekihan – 赤飯 red rice. Just as delicious as it sounds? It’s made with azuki beans and usually sprinkled with black sesame seeds
  • dorama – ドラマ drama. Refers to tv programs
  • mochigome – 餅米 a kind of sticky rice that is used for making mochi and other special dishes called okowa.

Ghost Town

My first apartment was in a ghost town. No, not like an American ghost town. It was a ghost town because it was located on the Ghost Line that runs through Japan. You see, in August, during the Obon season, ancestors return to visit. They take the yūrei sen and my little area of Kyoto happened to be a stop on the line. It had a pond and of course ghosts get thirsty so they would stop by the pond to drink. I am not making this up. It’s what I learned from everyone when I said I lived in Midorogaike.


Reactions would vary. Many people would shiver either involuntarily or dramatically and say, “Oh, aren’t you scared to live there?” I wasn’t… but I was beginning to understand why the apartment rent was cheaper than other places.

Kyoto took its ghosts seriously. I started to learn the stories. For example, one of the popular ghost stories was about a takushii driver who picked up a woman downtown. She asked to go to Midorogaike and when they got there, he turned around and the woman had disappeared leaving just a damp spot where she’d been sitting. In fact, that story was so well-known that sometimes when I would try to catch a taxi home from the same downtown area, the taxi drivers would refuse to take me when they heard my destination. I am really not making this up. Take a look at this.

Every day I’d leave my apartment and walk to the bus stop to get into town. I’d walk past the same gentleman each morning. He sat ramrod straight in a kuruma isu with a fine red and grey woolen blanket draped carefully across his lap. He had a stern look on his face. Dignified, maybe you’d call it. He was older. I’d calculated he was just the right age to have fought in World War II and here I was, an American, walking by him each morning. I never dared to say a word. Should I apologize for the war? Surely the injuries that had put him in that chair were from the war. What did he think when I walked by? Did the sight of me bring back bad memories? There was no other way to get to the bus stop. And he was out there every morning. I just didn’t know what to do. (Let’s all keep in mind that I was just 22 and had a vivid imagination.) I felt like I had to do something. Our two countries had fought each other.

So one day, I summoned up all of my courage, looked at him straight in the eye and said, “Ohayo gozaimasu.” And made a tentative bow.

And to my great surprise, his stern demeanor crumbled up into a warm smile and he responded, “Ohayo-chan.”

Ohayo-CHAN? What the heck was that? Ohayo-san was a Kyoto version of “good morning” but why was I getting the ‘chan‘ treatment? I still do not know, but chan is what you’d use, instead of san, when speaking to a child. From his point of view–and age–maybe that was warranted. The other reason could have been an indication of warmth or affection.

From that day on, we greeted each other. I regret that I never had a real conversation with him, but my Japanese ability was very limited and I never dared try. I figured I’d done my bit for world peace and left it at that.

My route to the bus stop. Every morning.
  • obon – お盆 a holiday in August (or July in some areas) where ancestors return. So, many people travel back to their own home towns to greet them. Basically it serves as a summer holiday break.
  • yūrei – 幽霊 ghost, or spirit. More spirit than ghost.
  • Midorogaike – 深泥池 The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ And it is.
  • takushii – タクシー taxi
  • kuruma isu – 車椅子 wheel chair. Isu itself is chair and kuruma is car or a wheeled vehicle
  • ohayō gozaimasu – お早うございます good morning. This is a very polite way of saying it. WIth friends you can just use ohayō .
  • ohayō san – お早うさん The Kyoto way of saying good morning. Used widely in the Kansai area (Western Japan).
  • ohayō chan – お早うちゃん The Kyoto way of saying good morning to a child

Learning Japanese

Little did I know that it would become a lifelong task, but I walked into the classroom, Fall 1975, with great curiosity. The University of Kansas required me to take a language to graduate and during the summer I’d worked in a dorm kitchen with a Japanese fellow who said he’d help me learn it. Having flunked French in high school, I’d been told I had no aptitude for languages. Japanese was not popular back then as signified by the time slot it held—M-F, 8:30 AM. You’d have to really want it. (You’d have to want Korean even more since it was scheduled M-F, 7:30 AM.)

On the first day of class, the professor looked at the 23 of us and solemnly pronounced, “By the end of the academic year, only five of you will remain.” His words were prophetic and true. And until May, I wasn’t sure at all that I’d be one of the survivors. But I took to it like a fish does to water. Why?

That was puzzling my professor as well. Sure, I studied, but that wasn’t really it. He eventually figured it out, though.

“It’s because you have no concept of English grammar whatsoever.”

And, he was right. My high school years coincided with that phase of teaching when they threw bunpo out the window. We did creative stuff, i.e. a sentence was never diagrammed (whatever that means).

When you have no concept of English grammar, you have no resistance to Japanese. I never tried to figure out how it related to the structure of the English language because I did not know the structure of the English language. And flunking French just proved to me that Eastern languages were easier. Japanese just clicked for me and I didn’t mind memorizing the kanji.

This all went straight to hell when I started my second year of Japanese at Middlebury College during the summer of 1976. All the second year students had used the same, more popular, textbook and they had quite a different set of vocabulary than I had. The teacher used that textbook as well and I had never heard of eating itanda ebi in Ginza. I was miserable and started to doubt myself. One of the staff members said to me, “Just because studying intensively doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can’t learn the language. And he was right. The seven-hour-a-day, 30 characters to memorize-a-day format proved to be my bleakest language study. Furthermore, the director was cho-kibishii and demanded participation in all activities. I promptly broke my finger playing volleyball and got excused from that. (It took her 3 days to let me get my finger x-rayed because she presumed I was faking it. Hah!)

My first Japanese language professor was the best. He was an older gentleman who’d been in Japan after the war and could remember when you could see the rice fields from the Shinkuku Eki platform. He told us that we’d spend the first year learning all the rules of the Japanese language and the rest of our lives learning when we could break them. This is absolutely brilliant.

Many years later, I met up with this professor, who had a Ph.d in medieval Japanese linguistics, at a pizza restaurant in Tokyo. We hadn’t seen each other in years. He had trouble ordering and I gently stepped in. He beamed. He was happy to see how I’d done with the wonderful start he’d given me. I am forever grateful to Professor Richard Spear and the University of Kansas Japanese Department.

  • bunpo – 文法 grammar. Literally the method of sentences
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, remember? From another post?
  • itanda ebi -いたんだ えび apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jordan that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jordan fail.
  • chō kibishii – 超厳しいIn this case, chō means really. It’s a bit slangy, but young people use it for emphasis. Kibishii means strict.
  • Shinjuku Eki – 新宿駅 Shinjuku is a place in Tokyo. It also often refers to the station there, even without eki which means station. It’s chaotic, confusing, busy, and there may be people lost in there right now.