Saturday, September 27th, 2008

I’m going to Japan!

Jeremy has been asked to speak at Web Directions East in Tokyo in November, and it goes without saying that I’m going to tag along because…dude, it’s Japan!

I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a looong time—probably ever since I first picked up a William Gibson book. When the prospect of Web Directions East arose several months ago, I tried not to think about it too much because I knew I would be massively disappointed if it fell through. But several months on, the conference is set, the plane tickets are (almost) booked, the travel plans have (almost) been made, and I can now officially be excited.

I tend to view traveling to a new country as an opportunity to dabble in a new language. I always like to know a few words of the local language, partly because I hate the helpless feeling of not being able to communicate properly, but mostly because I’m just a word nerd who gets off on knowing how to say “thank you” in Tlingit or “that was delicious” in Thai. So naturally, as soon as I found out the Japan trip was on, I decided I had to learn a bit of Japanese so I wouldn’t feel completely and utterly lost when we arrived in Tokyo.

It’s fair to say that I knew next to nothing about Japanese a few short months ago. The first thing I learned is that written Japanese uses 3 (three) alphabets, or rather, two syllabaries (hiragana and katakana, each with 46 basic symbols) and one set of characters known as kanji, of which there are, oh, about 50,000. But only around 2,000 of those characters are used really frequently.

Uh, yeah. So much for being able to read the street signs then.

I haven’t let this knowledge scare me off, though. Fully aware that I have no chance in hell of learning any significant amount of Japanese in the short time available to me before the trip, I have nonetheless embarked on some intensive self-study in the hopes of maybe being able to at least work out some menu items when I’m in Japan (culinary exploration being, as always, a key aspect of this trip).

I’m making use of a few programs recommended to me by Relly, namely, and the Michel Thomas Japanese foundation course. I’ve also got notebooks scattered around the house so I can practice writing hiragana and katakana while I’m at home (I didn’t intend to learn how to write the characters, but writing them helps me remember them), and I’ve got some kana and kanji apps on my iPod for practicing while I’m on the go.

And amazingly, after several weeks of sporadic study, some of it actually seems to be sticking. My first revelatory moment came a few weeks ago: On his last trip to San Francisco, Jeremy brought me back some little sushi stickers, some of which have Japanese writing on them. I had no idea what the writing said—or even what characters it was written in—when he first gave the stickers to me. The stickers sat by my computer for ages, and every once in while I’d look at them and giggle, because little sushi stickers are quite funny. And then one day, after I had started coming to terms with hiragana, I idly picked up the stickers—and lo, I could read what they said! It was like in a movie, when gibberish symbols suddenly morph into letters and words. Unagi! Uni! Maguro! (It helped that the writing happened to be the names of types of sushi, which was pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Japanese.)

That small victory spurred me on to keep at it, and since then I’ve been making a concerted effort to study a bit every day. I walk around the house talking to myself in what little Japanese I now know (“I like it, therefore I will buy it.” “Yes, I will drink a beer.” “I drink coffee every day, but I do not eat sushi every day.” ). I pore over pictures of Japan, attempting to read the signs on the shops. I find myself transfixed by the packaging in Asian food stores. And I go to bed every night with Japanese words and thoughts of Japan swirling around in my mind.

I think it’s all driving me a bit mad—not to mention poor Jeremy, who has to put up with me shouting “Soba!” and “Yakitori!” at him every time I work out what’s written on one of those red lanterns. But it’s rather thrilling as well. It’s been a long time since I tried to learn a brand-new language from scratch, and I’ve never immersed myself in a language like this on my own. It’s tough, but it’s so incredibly satisfying when all the little linguistic pieces start coming together, and you start seeing the patterns and connections, and you start understanding the syntax and morphology, and…okay, yes, I’m a language dork. But it’s like code-breaking: you chip away at it and chip away at it, and when you finally crack it, the sense of achievement is fantastic.

Whether any of this will be of any practical use to me once we’re in Japan remains to be seen. But for now, it’s just brilliant fun!



Hey that’s great Jess. Scott and I both studied Japanese a few years ago, it’s a gorgeous language.

Don’t worry about street signs, etc as all the signs in the subway (in Tokyo at least) are also written in Romanji, as well as kanji.

You’re going to be in foodie heaven. Make sure you go and eat at an okonomiyaki restaurant, as well as go to the tsukiji markets for 4am fresh off the boat sushi.

Sooo jealous, you’re going to have such a great time.

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