Naomi and I were having lunch at a restaurant across the main street (Senbon Dori) from her apartment and I was still experimenting with my newly purchased camera. One hesitation I had before buying it was that everything is in Japanese, including the instruction book and some of the camera readouts. I was busy making use of my rudimentary knowledge of katakana (the phonetic alphabet for foreign words), which I started memorizing just three days before arriving, plus help from Naomi with some of the kanji (the Chinese pictographic characters — you have to recognize some 3,000 of these much more complex characters just to be able to read the newspaper!) and hiragana (the complementary phonetic alphabet to katakana but used only for native Japanese words that don’t have proper kanji or by kids just learning to write), to decipher as much of the manual as I could before leaving Japan.
I started shooting at the default low resolution (1Megapixel) setting, experimented with the medium (3MP) and highest (6MP) resolutions at various JPEG compression settings but soon settled on the 6MP-“normal” setting, which gives me a good compromise of 112 quite good quality pictures per card.
The two pictures above and those of the grocery store shelves on page 4 were taken at the low resolution 1MP setting. Most of those below were taken at 6MP except the ones at Toji Temple, which were at 3MP. The photo at the bottom of this page (in the shabu-shabu restaurant) and those on page 5 were taken with the point-and-shoot 35mm film camera. The differences in quality between images are not visible on these pages because of their small size but they become apparent when the original files are viewed on my computer monitor at higher magnification.
There were other restaurants nearby where we had breakfast, including one called “Colorado Coffee Company.” Japanese breakfasts took some getting used to. They usually included a small green salad and some had two kinds of small sandwiches (sa-n-do-se-to, or sandwich set) in which the bread was opened up like a small pita; one was filled with small slices of ham and cucumber and the other had deviled egg and lettuce in the pocket.
A latté or cappuccino costs the same as a regular cup of coffee so we always got a latté or cappuccino, which made us feel like we were getting a good deal, or at least that we weren’t paying too much for just a cup of plain old coffee.
To anyone planning to visit Japan, I would highly recommend memorizing katakana. It’s an endless source of amusement! Since it’s reserved for foreign words (although now you see even native Japanese words written out in katakana even though they might have proper kanji or should be written in hiragana at the very least) and since most foreign words turn out to be English, it’s possible to read many signs, although it may take several moments before it dawns on you what those words are.
You can try it out for yourself by downloading the katakana (PDF 42K) and using it to translate the “code.”
Some are relatively easy to read (especially given the visual clues), such as the sign for ma-ku-do-na-ru-do-ha-n(m)-baa-gaa (Macdonald’s Hamburger). Others are more difficult to figure out, especially since there are no spaces between words, no plurals, no punctuation marks other than maybe a period and funny right-angle parentheses, and no capital letters.
Sometimes they leave off trailing syllables or whole words, or seem to add many more syllables than necessary. Bi-ru is building but bi-(plus a dash to extend the sound slightly to bii)-ru is beer (an important word on this trip); fu-ro-n-to is front desk. Chi-zu is a map but chii-zu is cheese — you could very easily be disappointed and quite confused by asking for one of these items using the wrong pronunciation.
The dash (which seems to function as sort of a macron to extend the sound) is used quite a bit, such as can be seen in the Macdonald’s sign above. When written vertically the characters are read in each column top to bottom, right column to left, and the dashes are vertical. When written horizontally the characters are read in rows left to right and from the top row down, and the dashes are horizontal (notice the corresponding characters on the vertical and horizontal Macdonald’s signs).
The only (very strange) exception I discovered is on signs written on trucks or vans, where the horizontally arranged characters are read left to right on the left side of the van but right to left on the right side — I guess it makes sense to read it from the front of the van to the rear.
I couldn’t figure out for the longest time “Kangaroo Delivery Service” (ka-n-ga-ru-[dash]-de-ri-ba-ri-sa-bi-su) when I was on the right side of an express-delivery-service van. It wasn’t until I saw one of their vans from the left side that it all made sense.
However, to make matters even worse, this is apparently sometimes done even if the characters are written in English. It took Naomi quite a long while to figure out that the truck above belonged to “Abe (pronounced ah-bay) Transport.”
Naomi’s childhood friend Erin Goodson would find this especially humorous since her mother and father pointed out that if the letters in her name were reversed her name would be “Nire Nosdoog,” — by which we still refer to her from time to time. (Strangely, my name becomes transformed into something vaguely Greek: “Sicnarf Otomakas.”)
Since there are no spaces, the first major difficulty you’ll notice immediately is that you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins. Long sentences can take an excessively long time to figure out, especially if you have just memorized katakana character by character. I’m sure I must have looked like a foreign idiot staring at signs for a very long time trying to figure out what they said, but at least I looked like an amused foreign idiot.
In the picture above, at least the English characters were separated by a space between the words Abe and Transport. Imagine the added difficulty if there were no spaces between English letters in a sentence or phrase and you’ll have a good idea of what it’s like to read katakana (and Japanese in general).
During the first week of her summer internship in Tokyo, Naomi ran across another example of not-immediately-obvious katakana: sa-a-mo-ka-me-ra (thermal camera). She’s also come across “bi-pu-su,” which I never would have been able to figure out; since there’s no “V” in Japanese, it is the closest they are able to get to “VIP’s”!
One of her friends in the Stanford Japan program was recently puzzled by another word that kept coming up very frequently when the use of a graphics software application was being explained. Fortunately the discussion didn’t take place over lunch; “sa-mu-ne-ru” doesn’t mean “salmonella” as anyone might hastily guess under that circumstance (incorrectly but with a momentary feeling of impending intestinal horror) — it means “thumbnail,” a small preview (thumbnail-sized) image.
One good thing is that Japanese is very easy to pronounce. Unlike in English or other languages, there are no real accents and no radical variations from the few basic sounds. Whereas Chinese may have 5 different “tones” of the same syllable meaning 5 different things depending on how you pronounce it and is completely dependent on accents, Japanese only has one “tone or accent so you would be understood if you pronounced your Japanese in a monotone. In this sense, it is the exact opposite of Chinese.
Also, unlike English, vowels always have the same sound (the same sound as in Spanish and, oddly enough, Hawaiian), a=ah, i=ee, u=oo, e=ay, o=oh. For some reason most Americans (exluding everyone from Hawaii) find it impossible to pronounce two or more of the same vowels in the same word the same way, which is probably why we butcher any foreign word that we try to pronounce. Mainland tourists to Hawaii have an especially hard time with Hawaiian words like Kaaawa (Ka‘a‘awa, pronounced “kah-ah-ah-vah”) or Kalanianaole, for example.
A consonant is always followed by a vowel, except for "n," so, in particular, katakana (as well as hiragana and, I presume, kanji) is organized first by the five vowels alone and then by consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w) followed by each of the vowels.
There are “alternate” consonants created by adding two little marks somewhat like opening quotation marks (slanted to the left) to the upper right corner of certain characters. With these marks, k becomes g, s becomes z, t becomes d, h becomes b.
With a circle somewhat like a degree symbol (°) added after the characters, h becomes a p.
There are also some combination characters in which a main sound is followed by a smaller written character ya, yu or yo (and a few others recently added to more closely mimic the sounds in western words). Thus chi (oh, did I forget to mention another minor complication: that “ti” is usually pronounced “chi”?) plus a small ya becomes cha, as in cha-cha (very useful in case you want to find the local latin dance club).
This explains why a simple word like my name, Francis, has to be pronounced as a somewhat convoluted “fu-ra-n-shi-su.” In contrast, my name as translated to Spanish, “Pancho” or “Panchito,” (by which I am widely known around the Blackhawk Museum, thanks to my colleague Nora) translates directly to Japanese with no problem at all: “pa-n-cho” or “pa-n-chi-to.”
There is no pure R or L per se but instead there is a combination sound similar to the beginning of the Spanish rolled-R that sounds like RL with a little D mixed in. You have to decide, if you are trying to decipher katakana, whether an R or an L is what they are trying to reproduce (see “weiner roll,” at the bottom of page 2, in which the sound is an R at the end of “weiner” and the beginning of “roll” but an L at the end of “roll”).
To the Japanese, that there is a distinction between an R and L (and D) isn’t clear at all and this is demonstrated by the way English words are often written with these characters interchanged. This can cause great confusion, but much amusement, for visitors from the United States. Naomi informs me that a very popular Japanese rock group is named “Shaka Labbit,” apparently a combination of Hawaiian “shaka” and English “Rabbit.” She’s also seen the word “probe” spelled “plobe” when written in western characters. You just have to keep an open mind when it comes to R and L.
Furthermore, even if something appears in English correctly spelled, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will make any better sense. This T-shirt was on prominent display on a mannequin at a store on Teramachi Dori (Street), a covered “arcade” (although it’s also used by bicycles, cars and trucks so you have to be alert at all times to avoid being run over — picture below).
Whenever I saw something in English like this I would stare at it almost as long as if it were written in katakana, in the hope that it would make sense if I stared at it long enough. It’s like when I was watching Japanese television on Naomi’s tiny TV, I found myself turning up the volume and wondering why I still couldn’t understand what people were saying.
Japanese TV was very interesting anyway, even though I couldn’t understand anything. I noticed that the women always seemed to be very feminine and cute, in both appearance and behavior, whereas the men tended to be very goofy and exuberant, and dramatically so. This seems to be the image that the Japanese public enjoys watching for entertainment.
It reminds me of watching Spanish or Indian television on my cable TV back here in California. Sometimes I enjoy watching it for a different source of amusement. You don’t need to know the language: the body language and sounds are enough to provide the entertainment.
This sign on a building near Nijo Castle is another case in point: “I am sorry but please expect!” almost begins to make sense.
Naomi cooking “Japanese pancakes” for breakfast in her tiny kitchen of her tiny apartment before heading off to school clear across town on her bicycle. Someone asked her if she lived in a “mansion” back home and she replied that no, she lived in a modest house in San Francisco. Only later did she learn that in Japanese “mansion” means “apartment,” although they also call them “apato.”
Pancakes in Japan are about 4 inches in diameter and you usually get two or three at most. I wonder what Japanese tourists must think when they visit Montana or Wyoming, where, when you order a regular stack of pancakes on the side, you get three (a “short stack” would be two) huge 11-inch-diameter pancakes (or whatever is the full diameter of the frying pan they happen to be using — after all, isn’t that how pancakes got their name?), in addition to your Thanksgiving-dinner-sized slab of ham and 2 or 3 eggs.
I once ordered a “222 special” at a now-defunct restaurant in Dubois (which residents insist on pronouncing “Doo-boys”), Wyoming; what arrived were two 11" pancakes, two eggs and two stips of bacon for $2.22 (~ 275 yen).
Tsukemono (preserved vegetable or pickle) store full of pickles of every conceivable kind in the Nishiki Koji food district, a covered street that intersects another well-known shopping street, Teramachi (“temple district,” picture below).
Nishiki Koji. Can you believe that bicycles, cars and trucks (but only very narrow ones) could appear at any time and drive down this “street,” scattering pedestrians laterally (and literally) into the shops? And it’s not even a one-way street!
A knife store in Nishiki Koji selling all kinds of high-quality knives and cookie cutters (the things in the boxes on top of the glass case).
An attractive shop in Nishiki Koji. The young woman looks like all the other young women in Kyoto (except Naomi): reddish-brown (in fact, I think I saw it referred to as “re-do-o-ra-n-ji,” red-orange) hair cut in a shag. It’s obviously the current fashion.
Teramachi Dori (“Temple District Street”), a covered arcade where we spent a lot of time browsing and just walking around looking at all kinds of interesting things. It’s also a nice area to spend time if it’s raining, which it seemed to do about every two or three days. I didn’t know it until I arrived but late June and early July is the rainy season in Japan.
Since Teramachi means “temple district” it’s not too surprising to see temples still there right amongst the shops. There are at least 26 temples, shrines and monuments in Teramachi, in just the few blocks between Kuramaguchi and Shijo streets, which I counted on a map in the book Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy. Naomi borrowed the book from the Stanford Center library for me to read while I was there in fact “exploring Kyoto on foot” and she later purchased it for me just before I left. Most of the historical background information on these pages come from this very useful book.
Toji Temple, where we went to the huge monthly flea market on the other side of the wall. “Ji” means temple and “jo” means castle, so I guess I’m repeating myself by saying Toji Temple. However the maps refer to “Toji Temple” and “Nijo Castle,” probably for the benefit of foreigners (gaijin) like me.
The flea market at Toji.
Another aisle at the flea market at Toji.
The vendor was selling Japanese hand saws which, unlike western saws, cut on the pulling rather than on the pushing stroke.
He was also selling some beautiful hand planes, obviously used but well-maintained and still serviceable. The blue color comes from the blue plastic tarp he used as a canopy.
Tako stand at the flea market (the sign says “tako-yaki,” which is a regional specialty of tako fried in a batter). Notice that tako means octopus in Japanese and this is not the same as a taco stand that you would expect to find in L.A. You might be shocked if you ordered a “taco” here — or, you could be very pleasantly surprised!
An Au (Naomi’s grandmother’s family name) store, where they sell cellular phones. I saw a lot of these stores all around in Kyoto, Nara and Kobe so they must be a very big chain in Japan.
An enlargement of a section of the image to show the quality of the digital camera. Notice that you can clearly read the banner on the left (assuming you can read Japanese backwards since we’re seeing the back side) and the word “au” to the right of the banner.
Overall I’m very pleased with the quality and functionality of the camera, especially once I figured out how to make use of its more advanced features. After a few days I was able to take it off “automatic” and use it like a “real” camera to get the best quality under different situations. For instance, the color balance can be set for indoor (incandescent) lighting, three types of fluorescents, cloudy days (too blue) and two “custom settings” (“ka-su-ta-mu-ho-wa-i-to-ba-ra-n-su” — custom white balance).
The light meter also has three modes: average, matrix and spot. It took me a long time to figure out that “ma-ru-ti” meant multi-segment (matrix) metering.
Upon returning to work at the Blackhawk Museum, I put the camera to work immediately to take some photos of a custom motorcycle exhibition by legendary designer Arlen Ness and an automotive and industrial design exhibition from the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.
Coincidentally, while I was in Japan and while the Academy was installing their exhibition, the same Fuji FinePix 6900Z camera was being shown and recommended by one of the Academy’s professors. I hadn’t done any previous “homework” on digital cameras since I wasn’t really looking for one and I didn’t have much choice because the Fuji was the only used digital I saw in the camera store windows I happened to look at. I’m happy that it turned out to be the same camera model that was recommended by the Academy.
A manhole cover in Osaka. I saw many different designs of amazingly attractive and very well-maintained manhole covers in Osaka and Kobe.
With the Watanabes in front of Osaka City Hall where we met before going to Kobe. The Watanabes were one of Naomi’s host parents when she visted Osaka in high school as part of a San Francisco-Osaka sister city program. The program was coordinated out of this City Hall so this was a convenient meeting place for Naomi and the Watanabes.
Naomi and the Watanabes at the entrance to a sake museum in Kobe, one of two we visited. At the second one Mr. Watanabe was very sneaky and bought me a bottle of sake while I was busy at the tasting counter.
An enlargement of a section of the photo above to show the clarity of the image. I’m able to read the time (1:30 p.m.) on Mr. Watanabe’s watch in the original image.
Naomi and the Watanabes watching the video in the sake museum explaining how sake used to be made and how it’s made now.
Kobe tower and the port, where we had dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant …
…where you cook vegetables and meats in a big pot of broth at the center of the table.