Plain Talk


The first taste of Japan by H.S.

Two German friends arrived on a Saturday this summer to visit Japan for the first time. With the 12-hour flight and 7-hour time difference, I thought they’d thump on the futon we prepared in a tatami room at our apartment. But as we offered some drinks with kakinotane peanuts and rice crackers, they sat at the kitchen table with us and we chatted and caught up.

When we asked if they would come with us to a bon-odori summer dance festival in Ebisu that evening, they said “Yes!” with their eyes twinkling with expectation. After all, they didn’t take a nap at all.

At the crowded dance venue, I found a friend of mine dancing in the cool yukata uniform of the locals. She invited us to her apartment, where her husband should be enjoying himself sipping beer.

When we arrived later, her husband welcomed us and offered beer, sake and sparkling wine. He also offered shiokara salted, fermented guts of squid to go with the drinks. I declined, but the Germans took a bit on the tongue each, even after I told them what it was, and said to one another it actually tasted somewhat like anchovy.

On Sunday, we went to a rakugo storytelling performance in English. The simple act of taking local trains and walking through the non-descript residential area to the venue was also an entertainment for the two. The performance was held in a meeting room at a local community centre, which interested them as well. They liked the “kuaidan” scary stories two semi-pro rakugo performers in kimono recited skillfully with gestures.

After the performance, we had okonomiyaki Japanese pizza at a dingy-looking joint, which amused them a lot. They took pictures of the waitress flip the sizzling okonomiyaki with spatulas for us. At the train station, a group of three Japanese recognized us from the rakugo venue and asked how we liked the recital. They were university students studying English hard, they said. Our friends and the students chatted livelily on the train until we parted at Ikebukuro.

On weekdays, the pair explored Tokyo on their own. They came home with stories to tell us every evening. They gave us each a lovely knickknack they found at an antique market in Yurakucho. It felt as if we were flatmates.

They traveled to Kamikochi, Takayama, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara and to Hiroshima before coming back to Tokyo. One of them, the likable scatterbrain, lost her JR rail pass in Osaka, but it was found and quickly arranged to be sent to the hotel in Hiroshima. She was impressed and grateful. They enjoyed a fireworks festival back in Tokyo as well.

At the end, our “flatmates” left for Narita with many hugs and “See you again” exchanged at the station. Japan left an unforgettably wonderful aftertaste on their palate, despite its unbearable hot and humid summer. They said, “We’ll start planning our second visit to Japan as soon as we got back home!”

Copyright (C) 2016 H.S. All rights reserved.









Plain Talk



I remember my student days in Kyoto when I wrote a paper about the aspects of minimalism, miniaturization, and compactness in Japanese culture in relation to design. As I continued to immerse myself in the Japanese way of life for years, these aspects have somehow revealed to me a sense of isolation.

I recall asking my professor about this subject. “Isolation?” my professor asked. “Give me an example.” I said, “Sensei, what do you think about the o-bento (lunch box) with the red, round umeboshi (pickled dried plum) in the middle of pure, white rice? It’s called the hinomaru bento, isn’t it, taken from the rising sun image of the Japanese flag?” My professor started to smile. I continued, “Sensei, do you think that is just o-bento art or a symbol of isolation of the Japanese, just as it is symbolized in the Japanese flag?” My professor threw me a wide grin, almost laughing. However, I never got a definite answer.

Perhaps, it is exaggerated imagination to correlate the red plum in the center of a boxed rice with shades of isolation, parallel to the red circle, proud and untouchable sitting on a blanket of white purity in the Japanese flag. After all, in reality, Japanese do not really perform as isolated individuals, but rather as loyal groups with common beliefs and aspirations. Domestically perhaps, but the striking impression of that round, red entity, all by itself somehow filters a sensation of isolation from the rest of the world.

We can feel isolation in language as well. There is no coincidence between Japan’s isolation period (Sakoku) from the rest of the world for about 250 years during the Edo period and the manner by which the society is culturally isolated by language.

Take the “half-Japanese.” Being “half” in Japan sometimes injects identity complex. There are some half-Japanese who have been living in Japan for a lengthy period of time, who look Japanese “enough,” and speak excellent Japanese, yet could never come at equal rank with “native” Japanese, because Japanese do not know how to relate to and accept them. “He looks Japanese, acts and speaks like a Japanese, but he can’t be one of us, can he?”

You can be a hen na gaijin (strange foreigner) in two ways: for speaking Japanese with an odd use of words expression and accent; or speaking “too perfect “ Japanese when you are not Japanese. That just doesn’t make sense to them, and therefore keeps you at arm’s length no matter how fluent you are in their language.

Day in and day out, we walk past ancient temples, sushi bars, soba noodle shops, noisy electronic stores, and throngs of congested pedestrian crossings, unmindful of the hundreds of symbols of isolation flying around us. Japan has been home to the social culture of the karaoke. While it is normally a crowd-gatherer for peers, company workers or families, the private karaoke rooms are also isolated nitches for loners who want to be alone, sing alone or while a few hours away from the stress of family and work. Capsule hotels are best examples of an isolated culture that not only confine a single person in a solitary unit of space but within suffocating dimensions that seem ample enough for breathing air. There is also the manga kissa or comic manga coffee shops that are actually more like overnight “convenience store” motels, providing the single person a private cubicle with a couch, TV and Internet.

Having traveled a bit to other countries, I have realized that it is only in Japan where I can feel completely safe and comfortable coming alone to a cafe´, restaurant, movie house, or concert without that awkward sensation of aloneness, but rather with a territory of respected privacy. Perhaps the dignified umeboshi on a serene, white flag brings this effect, and remember that a plum can be both sweet and sour even in bland, white existence.

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Tokyo Voice Column


Shita amé by Aonghas Crowe

The other night my wife used a word I hadn’t heard before: shita amé (下雨). I tried looking it up but couldn’t find it in any of my dictionaries. I did, however, learn that the two characters in reverse order (雨下) was pronounced "uka" and was yet another word that meant “rain” or “raining”. I had figured that much: there had been a downpour outside at the time.

Now, I’d never heard uka before, either, but, taking another look at 下雨 (shita amé ) with fresh eyes I remembered that it was the same as the Chinese word for “raining”, that is, xia` y?.

It had been years since I studied Mandarin. Nevertheless, the word was still tucked away in that cluttered pantry in my head, waiting for me to take it out and dust it off. Almost makes me want to study the language again. Almost, but not quite.

So, shita amé meant “rain”.

Or so I thought.

When I asked my wife about it the following day, she gave me a quizzical look and said she had no idea what I was talking about. “Maybe you misheard.”

“I did not mishear,” I protested. “You said, shita amé.”
After a moment’s thought, she had a sudden inspiration: “Ah! Ashita amé!”


I had indeed misheard, or more precisely had not heard the first syllable “a”. She hadn't said, "shita amé ", but rather "ashita amé ". She had been informing me of two things: one, it was going to rain tomorrow; and, two, I was going deaf.

Author Profile
Aonghas (pron. “Ennis”) Crowe is an author, freelance writer and translator, and blogger. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he lives in Fukouka. His other works,Too Close to the Sun,A Woman’s Nails, and B-Sides,are available at Amazon. You can follow Crowe on Twitter at@AonghasCroweor at his blog,, or “friend” him onFacebook.







「聞き間違いじゃないよ。君はちゃんと、したあめと言ったよ。」と僕は反論した。しばらく思案してから、妻は突然ひらめいたように、「アッ!あした あめ!」



Strange but True


"White lies" that many parents use.

Stressed out parents tell their children three white lies a day, a study has revealed. Half of mums and dads revealed they fibbed to avoid tears, yet felt it was important their children always told the truth. According to the survey by TV channel W, the top tale told by parents to kids is: “Yes, we’re nearly there.” To avoid a scene over the sound of the ice cream van, a quarter resort to: “When the ice cream van plays the music that means the ice cream has sold out.” And four in ten use: “If you don’t hurry up, I am going without you,” to get children out of the front door. The research to mark the launch of The Davina Hour, a modern day parenting show hosted by Davina McCall, found keeping the magic of Christmas and fairies alive meant having to bend the truth a little. For six in ten kept kids in line by warning them Santa kept a naughty list and more than half were adamant that the tooth fairy had visited overnight. Half of parents felt white lies were a guilt-free way of dealing with difficult questions and dads were more comfortable reeling off yarns than mums. Steve North, general manager of W which screens the show on Monday said: “Nobody likes to lie but occasionally we feel we need to do so to avoid awkward truths or when we feel it is in the best interests of the child. “But it does raise concerns about why it is acceptable for parents to think they can lie when the children should not, and how they can explain it away when they get caught telling a fib.”
Top 10 white lies
1. Yes, we’re nearly there
2. Father Christmas keeps a naughty list
3. The Tooth Fairy has been
4. Eating carrots will help you see in the dark
5. If you don’t hurry up, I am going without you
6.Watching TV will damage your eyesight
7. If the wind changes your face will stay like that
8.The needle won’t hurt
9. You should never tell lies
10. If you go outside with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold
How many have you used so far or have been told?




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