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O Fim duma Viagem

Come for the pancakes, stay for everything else

JAPAN | Sunday, 7 February 2016 | Views [379]

Monday we had more kanji practice. I’ve stabilized into only doing the four sentences asked, but trying to work all of the kanji into those four sentences. Which means I need to use a lot of new kanji each sentence, which can be a challenge if two aren’t present in the same compound.

I’ve mentioned kanji a lot, so I think it’s time for a quick overview of that. In short, kanji are the Chinese characters as they’re used in Japanese. (If you’re talking to someone from China, call them hanzi.) Historically, Japan realized that they needed a writing system.

Japan: Hey, China, bestest friend ever!

China: What do you want?

Japan: Oh, nothing. Nothing… (runs away with the writing system giggling maniacally)

China: You realize you can’t actually steal our writing system, don’t you? Like, you can take it, but we’ll still use it.

Japan: Yes, but we’re going to add our own pronunciation to your words.

China: OK…

Japan: Unless they’re long words, in which case we’ll keep your pronunciation, or at least a close approximation of it.

China: Now that’s just annoying.

Several centuries passed, and Japan decided that one alphabet wasn’t enough. What they really wanted was a syllabary. Or two, because honestly, stealing the writing system from China had worked so well for them that they wanted another writing system for the near-sole purpose of being able to write foreign words. Which is why when you study Japanese, you need to learn hiragana, (the syllabary for native words, appears anytime kanji do not) the katakana, (foreign words. Also equivalent of italics and used for telegrams, at least theoretically) and the kanji. Well, really all you need to do is learn the hiragana, make a decent attempt at the katakana (enough to be able to generally read it and to write your own name) and start learning the kanji. Because there are so many kanji, it takes a while.

The multiple pronunciations does not help. If you have a single character appearing by itself, or appearing followed by hiragana, it will generally have a completely different reading than if it’s combined with another kanji to form a compound. Oh, and if you have two compounds together, sometimes (but not always) the pronunciation will change again… in a way that makes the most sense if you think about it as hiragana.

Kanji are fun. I promise.

After the kanji practice hour was done, we went down to basement again to meet with the high schoolers. This time we were in groups of three, with two Japanese students for every American. We’d been told to come up with questions, and we were suppose to introduce one of the high schoolers, who would introduce the other one, who would introduce us. Based on the self-introduction the previous time, I had a few specific questions to ask, and I got very quick answers. I tried a few follow-up questions, but nothing too involved.

And then it was time for us to switch. For a while questions were going fine, simple questions with simple answers. They asked me who my favorite author was. I don’t have a single favorite author, so I chose one of my favorites semi-randomly (Milan Kundera). Then Yamaguchi-sensei came to stand behind me, and the high schoolers asked what my favorite book by him was. Which was an even harder question that I didn’t even try to answer. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting seemed like the easiest to translate title, so I said that. The students were looking at me like none of those words I said made sense. Yamaguchi-sensei was looking at me like “Why is this a hard question? Why do you not know all of your favorite book titles in Japanese?”

I told the students that my favorite author was not Milan Kundera, it was Kazuo Ishiguro. They looked surprised and confused, but changed their answers accordingly. Then I could confidently answer their question of what my favorite book by him was, since two years prior I’d needed to learn all of Ishiguro’s titles in Japanese. While that’s no longer true, (he’s written one book since I gave that speech) I was still able to remember the title of my favorite novel by him, so that made things easier. Answering why that was my favorite novel was a little harder, but nothing too difficult.

Yamaguchi-sensei continued to wait around listening, so rather than just say that my favorite food was artichokes and leave it as “it’s a food. It’s tasty,” I needed to try and explain what artichokes. Do you have any idea how hard it is to explain food to someone who’s never eaten it? Let alone in a foreign language? Like, you say it’s a vegetable, it has a lot of petals, and it goes on pizza. And then what else do you say? Especially when asked to describe the taste? This isn’t easy, but Yamaguchi-sensei kept looking at me like she expected me to come up with a description that would make the high schoolers go “yes, I understand completely what you’re talking about.”

There’s a reason that, unlike the high schoolers, I don’t relax when my teacher approaches. Her presence reminds me that this is very much classwork counting for a grade.

I don’t have afternoon classes on Monday, which meant that I could catch a train into Umeda just for the fun of the city. So I did, went back to Tokyu Hands, and bought some earrings. (In my last and penultimate week in Paris, I’d realized that I’d not yet bought myself any jewellery. Fortunately, Christmas markets were still around so this could be easily remedied.) Then I continued wandering around and realized that I was hungry. Previous searches for restaurants in Osaka had revealed “Twelve places to go to get pancakes,” and one of them (Hoshino Coffee) was nearish, so I headed to that. After looking at the menu for a bit, I saw a decent set that had a salad, lasagna, and scaled-down Osaka pancakes (which are thicker than American ones) so I ordered that.

I was either much hungrier than I thought or the food was amazing. I ate the salad, it was not as the necessary vegetable precursor to the main course, but as a delicious course all by itself. I’m not normally a fan of salad, and can think of only one restaurant that served salads I truly enjoyed, so that’s saying a lot. I moved on to the triple-cheese lasagna, thinking there was no way this could live up to the salad. It was even better. Ironically, the only part of the meal that I wasn’t super impressed by was the pancakes, but those were still very good.

I’m pretty sure this calls for a repeat visit to see if it lives up to expectations when the expectations are set higher than just “food.”


Tags: food, high schoolers, japanese, kanji, pancakes

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