オーロラ Aurora

About 15 years ago, I went on a brief trip to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) with my friend, David Willis. Recently, watching the TV series Fortitude, I was reminded of our visit to that extraordinary place at the edge of the world.

Arctic map
Svalbard. It’s way north

Fortitude, although filmed in Iceland, is set in Svalbard. Only the name has been changed. Everything else (the Norwegian governor, the coal mining and research settlements, the Russian settlement nearby, the nightclub, the “more polar bears than humans”, the legal requirement to carry a rifle for defence against bears) is immediately recognisable to anyone who has been there.

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Looking down the Longyear valley towards the town

All my life, I have been fascinated by the far north, so when I discovered that there were scheduled flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen, I leapt at the opportunity. David agreed to join me on this crazy adventure. In advance of the trip I read everything I could find about Svalbard (including terrifying stories of visitors and students who, having ignored the warnings to carry a rifle, were eaten by bears).

We were there at night. It was December, and the sun would not rise until February. It remained pitch dark the entire time we were there; even at midday there was not a trace of light in the southern sky. So the photos on this page were taken in the dark.

It’s hard to get used to the polar night. Walking around in the dark, I kept thinking “I wonder what these mountains, this valley, will look like in the daylight tomorrow morning”, forgetting that there would be no daylight, no morning.

We chose not to carry rifles while walking around in and near the settlement. This resulted in a constant state of low-level terror as we stumbled around the snowy landscape in the dark. There are lots of small reindeer in Svalbard. They have short legs and white bottoms. In the dark, a reindeer looks much like a polar bear. (In the dark, to a sufficiently nervous tourist, a pile of snow or rocks looks like a polar bear.)

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Svalbard reindeer. What do you mean, that looks nothing like a polar bear?
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Reindeer waiting for us to go away

The aurora borealis was a huge highlight of the trip. Playing high overhead all the time, curtains of green light moving through the sky, lending an air of magic and unreality to the scene. When I saw it, I just lay down on the snow on the hillside, staring up at it.

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Aurora over the Gruvefjell

The nightclub in Longyear town is called Huset (the house). Huset is in the “suburb” of Nybyen, 2 kilometres up the Longyear valley, at the other end of the only road  on the island. If you want to go to any of the other settlements, you have to go by snow machine, by dogsled, by boat, by air or on foot.

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The hill overlooking Nybyen is called Sarkofagen – the sarcophagus

On our first “night” we were sitting in the hotel bar, and at a certain point everyone around us started chanting “huset, huset“. Then a bus arrived and everyone piled in, so David and I did too. On the bus, they kept chanting “huset, huset” and we were amazed that they seemed so excited about it, given that it’s essentially the only nightlife on the island. But many of the miners spend the week in Sveagruva, only coming back to Longyear town at the weekend to let their hair down.

Huset was a bit wild – there are far more men than women; there’s a bit of a “tough guy” frontier culture and the drink is cheap (at least by comparison with Norway). But it was good fun and we stayed out of trouble.

We hadn’t brought any winter clothes – no coat, no hat – when we got on the bus to the nightclub. In fact, dressed for the warmth of the hotel bar, we weren’t even wearing jumpers when we followed everyone into the bus. When we emerged from the nightclub, there we were in our shirtsleeves. We couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of this; standing there in our shirtsleeves at 78° north in the middle of December, in the middle of the icy wilderness, in the middle of the polar night. We walked back to the hotel, drunk and happy, fortunate that the conditions were unseasonably warm.

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Safely back at the hotel

There are many adventurous things to do on Svalbard. You can go on guided day-long or multi-day trips by snow machine or by boat to see amazing things, both man-made (abandoned settlements) and natural (bird cliffs and glaciers). These activities are quite expensive, however, and may not be available in December when it’s dark and the sea is frozen. We signed up for one activity; a visit to one of the coal mines. This coal mine is rather special, because it’s the location of the Global Seed Vault, a secure “gene bank” where seeds are stored as a backup in case of catastrophe. I found a small piece of hard coal and kept it as a souvenir.

I hope I will one day have the opportunity to go back to Svalbard, to experience once again this utterly special place. Maybe in spring next time!

一番高い—a visit to the highest restaurant

The Burj Khalifa is the highest building in the world. On the 122nd floor is at.mosphere restaurant, billed as the world’s highest restaurant. Yesterday, we went there for lunch.

Lunch at 442 metres above ground level doesn’t come cheap. In fact, everything at at.mosphere is astonishingly, hilariously expensive, as if money has become disconnected from all meaning. But this post isn’t about how much it cost, so let’s just say it was the most expensive lunch I have ever eaten, and is very likely to remain so.

The occasion was Yuko’s birthday. Making a lunch reservation was a bit of a palaver, involving several e-mails back and forth, including instructions about what to wear:

Our dress code is Smart elegant and/or National dress:
Men: Must wear shirts with a collar and sleeves and closed fine shoes. No shorts allowed. Sandals are allowed if worn with National dress
Ladies: Elegant feminine attire. Beach sandals are not allowed.

Access to the restaurant is via the lobby of the Armani hotel, a super-chic hotel with an impressive array of supercars parked outside.

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Cars parked in front of the Armani Hotel, Dubai

Before arriving in Dubai, we had been warned just to get a taxi anywhere we want to go, as it’s a very pedestrian-unfriendly city. This was very sound advice, which I duly chose to ignore. This resulted in our arriving for our special-occasion birthday lunch half-an-hour late, a little sweaty and flustered, having found considerable difficulty in finding a way to access the Burj on foot. I wondered whether we were the first people ever to attempt to do so, and indeed we were stopped by a surprised security guard while walking up the ramp.

Entering the minimalist air-conditioned elegance of the hotel was like entering a different world, a kind of haven for the super-rich, whose every need is anticipated and seen to immediately without fuss. We were greeted very politely and shown to a special express elevator with just 2 floor buttons.

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Elevator to level 123

The elevator whisked us at high-speed up to level 123, from which we had to go down 1 flight of stairs to reach the restaurant.

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Welcome to At.mosphere

We were greeted with great friendliness by our waitress, who was very attentive throughout our meal.

The view from our window seat was northwards towards Dubai creek and Sharjah, with a collection of tall buildings in the foreground and a desert landscape stretching inland to our right. Hazy conditions made it hard to make out much detail looking along the coast.

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View of Dubai

First we were presented with a little plate of 3 amuse-bouches. These little salty bread snacks were a welcome treat as we were actually really hungry by this stage.

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amuse-bouches

Next a young man came over to offer us a choice of fancy bread, all baked in-house: a French baguette, a croissant with goat’s cheese or some ciabatta. He had a trolley with two great cylinders of butter, from each of which he whipped some onto a little plate for us while explaining to use their special virtues and French origins. The butter with seaweed was really good; silky and salty.

I ordered a roots soup with coconut and shiitake mushroom to start and a Patagonian cod main course. Yuko had a foie gras terrine starter and flank of wagyu beef with shallot confit and aligot (French for mashed potato, apparently) for main.

The root soup was deliciously thick and creamy, with Thai flavours like chili and galangal. I was pleased that we were offered more bread whenever we needed it; I hate running out of bread before I finish my soup, and I wanted to try the different kinds.

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roots soup

The cod dish was amazing; most notably for the flavours and textures of the risotto, which was made with black rice and lumps of meaty parmesan cheese.

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Patagonian cod with Venere risotto

Of course, a visit to at.mosphere is only partly about the food; people go there for the novelty of visiting the world’s highest building, and for the views that entails. And one of the best views is from the men’s toilets, which overlook the lake where the fountain display takes place. The multi-storey buildings look just like toys.

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View from the gents

We decided not to go for dessert, but a surprise was in store: a choux-pastry swan with a single candle and a “Happy Birthday” message for Yuko. I thought that was a lovely touch, and in fact it was really good.

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Birthday swan

We ordered some coffee to go with the swan, and this came with yet another surprise – a plate of fancy treats. The “lollipops” consisting of marshmallow-covered pineapple, dusted with pieces of orange sherbet, were especially good. Also included were mini-eclairs, a banana custard sweet and a light and moist canelé. We were also given a little basket of madeleines.

And at the end of all that, Yuko was given a little bag of chocolates to take home.

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Treats served with coffee

After we had eaten, our waitress gave us a little tour of the rest of at.mosphere: a private dining room and the lounge bar. The bar is apparently very popular as a place to watch the sunset while sipping extremely expensive drinks; you can also enjoy “luxurious high tea” there for around €150 per person. The people in the lounge were far more elegantly dressed than we were; most of the women were wearing cocktail dresses.

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Towards the coast at Jumeirah Beach and The World islands (almost invisible in the haze)
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South along the coast toward the Burj Al Arab and the Palm islands

In each area, we were given the opportunity to take pictures of the views and our waitress took pictures of us with various backdrops. She turned out to be quite a skilled photographer.

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Dara and Yuko in the lobby of at.mosphere

At last it was time to leave this rarefied world and return to the real world far below, where (lesson learned) we took a taxi back to our hotel.

ご馳走さまでした—Thanks for the lovely meal

In Japan, if you want to thank someone for cooking you dinner, or for treating you to a meal in a restaurant, you say:

御馳走さまでした go-chisou-sama deshita—that was a feast!

On Sunday evening we stayed in a hotel in Arima Onsen, a spa resort in the mountains above the city of Kobe. The hotel stay (which was very expensive, but that’s another story) included use of the bath facilities as well as dinner and breakfast. And dinner was indeed a feast. Over the course of several hours, maybe a dozen dishes were brought to the table, with probably hundreds of different exotic ingredients; all sorts of varieties of mountain vegetables, mushrooms, fish, meat, fruit, flowers and leaves, and so on.

There was a menu with a short description of each of the courses, but I couldn’t read most of it. However the overall theme was spring happiness, suggested by various pink items as well as seasonal ingredients.

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The bill of fare

The first course consisted of six individual servings of seasonal ingredients, presented in six bowls of different colours and shapes on a lacquered tray, and accompanied by a cup of plum wine.

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Starter course

In the centre, rear dish you can see a little leaf. This is kinome, the leaf of the sanshou or Japanese pepper tree, with a striking and delicious flavour. This ingredient made further appearances accompanying a fish dish and a steak dish later in the meal.

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Yuko making tea

We had a fish course. The fish is called gashira, which is some kind of rockfish or lionfish. Much of the time, it’s not useful to try to find out the English name for what you are eating; if it’s not part of western food culture, there may not be an English name for it, and even if the species has an English name that you’ve never heard of, you will be none the wiser.

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gashira

Next up was a sashimi course, with Ise-ebi as the centrepiece. I had a very disturbing experience with Ise-ebi many years ago; suffice to say that I double-checked to make sure that this one was dead when it was served to us as food.

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sashimi

I didn’t take photos of all the courses – for example there was a nabe course, where you cook the meat and vegetables yourself in a pot of boiling liquid. This was the course I least enjoyed: the bowl of ponzu dipping sauce provided had such a strong citrus flavour that it really overwhelmed all the other flavours.

Next we had some sirloin steak with shimeji mushrooms and vegetables. The two cubes of sirloin steak were incredibly marbled and tender, nothing like western beef. Note the western-style plate for this course, and the little shanshou leaf in the brown dish. The black stems are some kind of candied mountain vegetable.

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wagyu sirloin, shimeji, broccoli, peppers and pumpkin

This course was also cooked on your own personal hot plate, so there was no need to ask how you want your steak done – you just eat it when it’s ready.

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frying the beef and vegetables

I had eaten half the tempura course before I remembered to take a picture. But I was interested to see a lily or hosta leaf presented as food.

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tempura

The next course mixed sweet and savoury in an interesting way: an orange with prawns, plump fish eggs and radish. Absolutely delicious.

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Orange and seafood dish, on a very striking plate

The miso soup was very  good, made with red miso, rich and deep in flavour. The fish is ainame, which is apparently “fat greenling” in English.

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fish with rice, miso soup and pickles

Finally, dessert: cheesecake with ice cream.

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dessert

ご馳走さまでした! go-chisou-sama deshita!

耐震ポール—Earthquake-proofing poles

Japan gets more earthquakes than any other country. And when an earthquake hits, many people are injured by heavy items such as furniture falling on them. Remember that lots of Japanese people sleep on the floor so are especially vulnerable to falling objects if an earthquake happens at night.

Here in the Kansai area, earthquakes are relatively rare, but in 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake brought devastation to the nearby city of Kobe and was felt very strongly in Osaka, so people are very conscious of the dangers.

When my father-in-law moved to the new apartment, he asked me to secure the furniture to the wall. I thought we would use some kind of straps, but when we went to the hardware store (Konan), we found these: Earthquake-proofing poles.

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Lifelex brace-type earthquake -proofing poles

You simply assemble the poles and extend them between the top of the furniture and the ceiling. The poles prevent the furniture from toppling forward during an earthquake.

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Partially assembled

You fix the pole to the approximate length using a screw, and fit it in place.

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Earthquake-proofing pole on top of wardrobe

Then by turning the pole clockwise or anti-clockwise you can tighten it up (put it under more compression) until it is holding the furniture securely. The top and bottom red lines say スタート線 sutaato-sen—start line and ストップ線 sutoppu-sen—stop line, indicating the limits of fine adjustment. The left and right arrows say つっぱり tsuppari—tighten and ゆるむ yurumu—loosen.

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Adjustment mechanism

By orienting the feet in a front-rear direction, you achieve maximum protection against toppling forward.

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Job done!

Note on the word of the day:

A lot of the vocabulary in today’s blog post was new to me. I wasn’t able to read the name of the product when we found it in the shop.

耐震 tai-shin—earthquake-resistance

That first character 耐 tai indicates “durability” or “endurance” and appears in words such as 耐水 water-resistance, 耐熱 heat-resistance, and so on.

The second character 震 shin has the meaning “shake” or “tremble” as in the word for earthquake: 地震 ji-shin.

お好み焼き—okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is an Osaka speciality. It’s also a Hiroshima speciality. Osaka and Hiroshima people disagree as to which one is tastier.

Today we went to an okonomiyaki restaurant, Chibo, for lunch. We ordered one Hiroshima-style and one Osaka-style okonomiyaki, to carry out a taste comparison and decide once and for all which one is nicer.

The waitress served the two okonomiyaki onto a hot plate in the centre of the table and, with a rapid back-and-forth movement, drizzled each of them with fine lines of mayonnaise.

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okonomiyaki being drizzled with mayonnaise

She then drew the spatula across the lines of mayonnaise to create a lovely scalloped pattern on the top of the okonomiyaki.

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Creating a pattern on the okonomiyaki
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The finished product, ready to eat. いただきます!

I have to say, the two dishes were remarkably similar. In the end, we decided that while both were delicious, one was indeed very slightly tastier than the other. But we weren’t really sure which was which, so the question remains unresolved.


A note on the word of the day:

Okonomiyaki is a dish made with flour and eggs, like a savoury pancake or omelette. Inside, you can put various fillings such as cabbage, bacon, shrimp or noodles. Then you spread worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise on top, and optionally sprinkle it with toppings such as katsuo fish flakes and aonori seaweed powder. Yuko makes delicious okonomiyaki (usually incorporating Irish bacon rashers). She says the secret to success is using proper okonomiyaki flour, that’s hard to get outside Japan.

お好み焼き o-konomi-yaki contains the word konomi, meaning preference or something you like, and yaki meaning grill. 好み konomi is written with the same kanji as 好き suki meaning to like or to love; this kanji is made up of the symbol for woman 女 and child 子.

 

Why learn bushu? Building-blocks of kanji

In your first year of learning Japanese, you probably learned the days of the week:

  • 月曜日   Monday
  • 火曜日   Tuesday
  • 水曜日   Wednesday
  • and so on.

And, with one exception, you will also have learned all the characters needed to be able to write these words; simple, Grade 1 kanji such as 日 sun, 月 moon, 火 fire, and 水 water. But the fly in the ointment is that tricky 18-stroke character 曜 you in the middle of each of the weekday names. Until you somehow get to grips with that, you may be able to read the Japanese word for Monday, but you won’t be able to write it.

Grade 1 kanji © Dara Connolly
Grade 1 kanji © Dara Connolly

Learning to write simple kanji is a straightforward matter of repetitively copying out the character until it is imprinted in your mind and muscle memory. Which is fine for the first 80, or maybe even 200. But over time you will have discovered that these simple characters are not typical, and that this method doesn’t scale well.

Fortunately, as you encounter more complex kanji, you will have noticed that many share features in common, and that those features suggest the meaning or sound. For example, the characters 痛 painful, 病 sick, 疲 tired, and 疾 shame all have the following feature in common: 疒. This “radical” or bushu*, known as やまいだれ yamai-dare, gives you a clue that the character means something to do with sickness. Other common bushu include radical 149 訁gon-ben, which appears on the left side of characters to do with speaking, radical 140 艹 kusa-kanmuri, which sits on top of kanji that refer to plants, herbs or vegetation, and radical 85 氵sanzui,  which suggests a watery meaning.

There are 214 classical bushu in total, and during the past year I invested the time to learn each of them. Even the obscure, archaic and seemingly useless ones. Not just to recognise them, but (importantly) to write them. So was it worth it?

Well, let’s consider the character 曜 you, mentioned above. No longer is it a scary, seemingly arbitrary assemblage of 18 strokes; it is now a simple-to-remember construct of just 4 parts: 日 + 彐 + 彐 + 隹.

Each of those parts has a nickname, so I can describe it in words: nichi-hen, kei-gashira, kei-gashira, furutori. (sun, pig’s head, pig’s head, old bird. And remember that I’ve learned to write each of these parts, so it’s trivial to put them together and write the character. A character that, like so many others, I have been able to recognise for 20 years but would not previously have been able to write.

On the other hand:

  • The bushu were not actually designed or selected for this purpose. They are not a comprehensive list of kanji building-blocks, nor were they ever intended to be. Their purpose is to be dictionary headings, to allow you to look up characters in the dictionary. Some very common building-blocks are not bushu, but are still worth learning. For example, 寺, which appears in characters like 詩 time, 待 wait, 持 carry, 侍 samurai, 特 special, and so on, usually giving a sound clue (“ji”) rather than a meaning clue. You really need to know those too.
  • The list of bushu is not “efficient”; many of the bushu are themselves made up of simpler bushu. For example radical 186 香 ”fragrant” is made up of radical 115 禾 ”two-branch tree” and radical 72 日 ”sun”. This is okay though, as the more complex ones are often kanji worth remembering in their own right.
  • Some of the simplest radicals are just lines or dots, with limited semantic content.
  • Some of the bushu are utterly obscure. For example you will almost certainly never meet any kanji containing radical 35 夊 sui-nyou “go slowly” or radical 191 鬥  tatakai-gamae “war”. But I’m a bit of a completist, so I learned them anyway. And in the case of radical 192 鬯 nioi-zake “sacrificial wine”, it paid off (see below).

But the day I knew it was worth it was when I noticed that I could now write the following famously-difficult character:

Utsu
utsu – depression

From being an absurdly complex and impenetrable mass of lines, it now resolves itself as just six parts to remember, each of which I already know how to write: 木 缶 木 冖 鬯 彡(tree, can, tree, cover, sacrificial wine, hair).

So why learn bushu? Four reasons:

  1. They’ll give you clues to the meaning of the kanji
  2. They’ll give you a short cut to remembering new kanji, without having to explicitly learn them
  3. They’ll make your knowledge of kanji more precise (for example, allowing you to clearly distinguish similar kanji)
  4. You need them to be able to look up characters in an old-fashioned dictionary (does anyone do that anymore?)

And maybe a 5th reason, if you’re anything like me:

5. It’s kind of interesting in its own right and gives you more insight into the writing system.

 


 

Is it worth learning the bushu during your first few years of learning Japanese? I’d say almost certainly not. You can put your time to far better and more enjoyable use learning vocabulary and grammar, listening, speaking and reading the language. But later—maybe much later—you may come to feel, as I did, that your knowledge of the kanji is built on a somewhat shaky foundation; that you can recognise many kanji in context but you don’t really know them; that you still get confused between kanji such as 通 and 進, or 速い and 遠い (or worse, you never realised that 着る kiru—to wear and 着く tsuku—to arrive are the same kanji!) And you’ll want to go back and consolidate your knowledge, deepen your understanding. And when that time comes, you could do worse than set aside some study time to learn the bushu.

 


 

* The word 部首 bushu literally means “section head”; each radical sits at the head of a section of the dictionary, and that’s how you look up the character in the dictionary. They are known as the “Kang Xi” radicals after a dictionary of 47,000 characters published in 1716 on the orders of Chinese emperor Kang Xi, and they still form the basis of paper dictionaries in Japan and China to this day.

 

 

 

カルタ—playing cards

I received a present yesterday evening.

We met my former Japanese teacher and her family for dinner, in what has become an annual tradition, at the Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant アルピーノ Alpino. It was an evening of delicious food and convivial company, as well as an unbeatable Japanese learning experience to be surrounded by Japanese conversation, including the excited chatter of a 7-year-old girl who sat beside me and chatted away to me all evening.

The present came neatly wrapped in a yellow bag from Osaka souvenir shop ichibirian, the bag decorated with typical images of Osaka and some phrases in Osaka dialect. Opening it up, I found what I thought was a book, with the title “Osaka PhD”.

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Front of card game “Osaka hakase”

But instead of opening like a book, the middle slid out to reveal two sets of playing cards; one with text and the other with colourful images of fun facts about various Osaka neighbourhoods.

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Osaka waiwai karuta

The “front cover” (or maybe back cover, from a European point of view) says 大阪わいわいカルタ oosaka waiwai karuta—Osaka clamorous cards, and then in smaller writing underneath, “Did you know? Didn’t you know? This and that about Osaka”. The whole cover is brightly decorated with typical Osaka images such as Osaka Castle, Tsutenkaku tower, bunraku theatre, fugu, and a bowl of ramen.

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Osaka waiwai cards: や

Each card pair is associated with one hiragana symbol. For example, the text card for や (ya) has the following “interesting fact”:

八尾市はな 歯ブラシ生産 日本一

yao-shi wa na, haburashi seisan nihon ichi

Yao city is number one in Japan for toothbrush production.

The corresponding image card shows a woman holding a toothbrush atop a smiling Mount Fuji, symbolising the number one status.

The text on the cards uses little furigana symbols alongside the kanji for the benefit of children (and me!) for whom the task of learning to read Japanese is still a work in progress.

I was really struck by the ease and fluency with which musume-san read the text on the cards. I expected a child of that age to be painstakingly sounding out the words, but she just read them off at full speed (much more quickly than I could). I wondered if she was just familiar with the text of the cards from playing with them at home, so I tested her by showing her some sentences on my phone that she had never seen before. She showed equal facility reading the following random sentence:

ドライバーでねじを回したが、なかなかうまく回ってくれない。

doraibaa de neji wo mawashita ga, nakanaka umaku mawattekurenai.

I turned the screw with the screwdriver, but it just didn’t want to turn.

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天才娘さん tensai musume-san

I guess she is some kind of a prodigy; I assume most Japanese 7-year-olds don’t read at that level. I asked her mother about it and she just replied that “she loves reading”.

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Sensei, danna-san and musume-san after dinner with me and Yuko in Alpino

Anyway, it was a lovely evening and we all left feeling feeling happy and saying また来年 mata rainen—see you again next year!