クスノキ kusu no ki—camphor tree

Fans of David Mitchell’s wonderful novels—Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—may remember his recurring references to camphor trees; great spreading camphor trees that serve as a unifying motif as well as a source of spiritual power and continuity within the stories.

Until I came to live in Japan last month, I did not know what a camphor tree was. I had heard of camphor; I knew it was once used (perhaps still is used?) to make mothballs. But on my previous visits to Japan, I had never specifically noticed these trees or learned to recognise them.

The picture above shows the shrine behind our house, 八坂神社 yasaka jinja, which has 6 big old camphor trees. (You can see the upstairs balcony at the rear of our house, if you know where to look. Does having these camphor trees behind our house mean I’m living in a David Mitchell novel? I hope not.)

Two of these trees are over 400 years old and are considered to be “historic trees” by Sakai city. One of them has a god, or kami, living in it.

This sign explains about the kami who resides in the tree:

From memory of Yuko’s explanation, the sign says this kami, 楠魂彦姫の大神—kusutama hiko-hime no ookami—has both male and female characteristics, and therefore is consulted on matters of relationships and marriage. Also, the sign explains that the kami originally resided in a different camphor tree to the north-west of the torii gate of the shrine, but moved to this tree. Then as now, the kami was consulted by the people.

Sometimes you see a person engaging the spirit of a sacred tree. They approach the tree, clap their hands together twice, and then lean towards the tree and stand for a while with their hands pressed against the bark. Having watched these people and become curious, I have tried it myself. People laugh at tree-huggers, but there is no denying the sense of power and calm that comes from touching a great old tree.

Now that I’ve learned to recognise camphor trees, I see them all around; not only in the grounds of shrines (such as Kanaoka shrine, above) but also in our local park. The stippled bark is very recognisable, as is the overall form of the tree, with long, long boughs spreading horizontally high above the ground. But the most distinctive feature is the smell of the leaves. Crush a camphor leaf in your hand, and the perfume is released, a high, powerful, head-clearing, exhilarating smell, with something of the same character as eucalyptus oil or fresh cedar wood, but different from both.

Note on the word of the day:

クスノキ kusu no ki is the Japanese name of the camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora, native to Japan, China and Taiwan. I could have written the word using the kanji 楠, but decided to stick to katakana for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I would have felt like a bit of a cheat because I don’t know the kanji. And secondly, I think most Japanese people would write it in katakana because they don’t know the kanji either. But I could be wrong about that. You can see the kanji 楠 in the picture of the sign, above (the very first character in the rightmost column), and you can also see the little furigana characters く kusu written beside it to tell the reader how to pronounce it. So I don’t know.

Anyway, according to Wikipedia, camphor is a white crystalline substance used in medicine, incense, as a culinary spice and as insect repellent.



Many people I meet in our local area have never heard of Ireland. Today we were chatting with an elderly couple who run a shop from their home, selling plants (flowers and vegetable seedlings). The conversation went like:

– Where are you from?

– Ireland.

– Ireland? Ireland? You mean Iceland?

– No, Ireland. It’s a different country.

– Does it have a lot of volcanoes? Is it very cold?

– No, that’s Iceland. Ireland is a small country near England.

– What is famous in Ireland?

– Guinness beer. Irish whiskey. Sheep. Potatoes.

– Guinness beer? Is it a drink? Never heard of it. Is it near Australia? What’s the name of that country near Australia? Ah, New Zealand.

Later, as we were walking along the river, Yuko thought she could have mentioned the song “Danny Boy”, or maybe the film “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne. Certainly younger people would know about U2.

Passing by the shop again on our way home, we stopped to buy some plants for the garden. Two cucumber plants, sweet peas and a colourful African daisy. It seems the man had done some research in the meantime, because he took a pen and deftly drew a sketch map of the British Isles on a guard rail, correctly pointed out Ireland, and said “it looks like a bean”. Well it did, a bit, the way he drew it.

I have similar conversations very often with people who have never heard of Ireland, but for some reason all of them have heard of Iceland. The abbreviated version, that I have in the park at least every second morning, goes: “What country?” “Ireland.” “Iceland?” “No, Ireland.” “Ireland?? Is it very cold there?” Other Irish people living in different parts of Japan report similar experiences (always with the Ireland/Iceland confusion).

It is interesting and a bit humbling to discover that your country is so insignificant that all these people go through their lives never knowing it exists. It gives a perspective of distance to all the concerns that seem so important in the life of our country. Still, having said that, I do think that most Irish people would be better informed about the world and would have at least heard of, say, El Salvador, Nepal, or Papua New Guinea.

Note on the word of the day:

アイルランド airurando is the Japanese word for Ireland, and is written in katakana. Most countries’ names are written in katakana. However there also exist kanji for lots of countries outside of East Asia, dating back to the Meiji era (or in some cases earlier) and some are still widely used. Most commonly written in kanji are 英 for England, 米 for America. At work last week I saw 独 for Germany on a PowerPoint slide. So, what’s the kanji for Ireland? Bearing in mind that nobody uses it anymore, it is: 愛蘭 Ai Ran—love orchid.

GW—Golden Week

Today is the start of Golden Week in Japan. Several public holidays fall close together, and many workers take the whole week off. It’s a very busy time of year for trains, hotels, flights, and on the roads, as everyone tries to make the most of their few precious days off.

We’re not going anywhere, partly because we don’t have a car, and partly because work has been so exhausting that I am very happy just  to be able to stay at home and relax with Yuko and the dogs.

With the exception of Boys’ Day (5/5), nobody cares much about the holidays themselves – they are days off, and that’s what matters.

But for the record, they are:

April 29th: 昭和の日 shouwa no hi—Showa Day, the birthday of the Showa emperor, who died in 1988;

May 3rd: 憲法記念日 Kenpou kinenbi—Constitution Day, the anniversary of the 1947 constitution;

May 4th: みどりの日 Midori no hi—Green day, a day to appreciate nature;

May 5th: こどもの日 Kodomo no hi—Children’s day, also known as Boys’ Day (Girls’ Day is March 3rd).

On Children’s Day, there is a tradition of hanging koinobori flags in the shape of carp, to blow in the wind (one for each member of the family). I took this photo last year when we were cycling along Phoenix Street in Sakai city.

The hard-pressed Japanese workers are getting a bad deal this year, because Children’s Day falls on a Saturday, so there are only 3 public holidays in Golden Week instead of the usual 4. That means they need to ask for 2 days’ annual leave instead of 1, if they want to take the whole week off. Many of my colleagues sadly won’t be enjoying Golden Week as they are too busy at work to take time off, or they have business trips scheduled.

Note on the word of the day:

“Golden Week”, often written as “GW” in Japanese, is an example of wasei eigo or Japanese English—an English word that is used in Japanese but not in English. Other examples include sarariiman—”salary man” meaning an office worker; boorupen—”ball pen” meaning a ballpoint pen; sofutokuriimu—”soft cream, meaning whipped ice-cream, and maikaa—”my car”, meaning a privately owned car (but not necessarily mine, as in “do you have a my car?”). These words are pitfalls for Japanese learners of English, who may quite reasonably assume that they are English words. The word “walkman” is a construction of this type, that in turn became an English word.

So why is it called Golden Week? Good question. I’ve no idea.

漢字 kanji

Like every Japanese learner, I’ve struggled over the years with the challenge of learning to read (and the secondary challenge of trying to learn the language without being able to read it). I still, after all these years, cannot read a newspaper or magazine article. Increasingly, however, I find I can decipher signs, slogans and other short texts containing kanji, and sometimes learn something new from context.

Like every Japanese learner, I’ve made use of various methods for learning kanji, found some useful and others less so. Certainly, modern technology has been a huge help, in the form of electronic flash-card and “Spaced Recognition System” (SRS) software such as Anki that can run on computers or handheld devices like my Android phone. Others are enthusiastic devotees of the Heisig system. I don’t know the answer – any system that works, and that you can maintain the discipline and motivation to stick with it, week after week, year after year, is the right method for you.

Anyway, in this post, which is probably of extremely limited interest to non-learners, I just want to mention some thoughts and early misconceptions about kanji based on my own experience as a learner.

Let’s say you’ve been learning Japanese for a year. You know the kana (or you are supposed to – let’s just say you wouldn’t like to admit that you’re a bit shaky on some of them and that you still routinely confuse さ and ち). And you’ve learned about 100 Grade 1 and Grade 2 kanji, enough for the JLPT Level N5.

At this point, I think there is a risk of some fundamental misconceptions about learning kanji and about kanji in general. This is because your early experience of learning these 100 kanji is unrepresentative of the experience of learning kanji, and because the 100 or so kanji you have learned are themselves highly unrepresentative.

1) In these early days you will typically have memorised each kanji by writing it out repeatedly until you can remember it. Each one is treated as a separate random shape that you have to imprint on your memory.

This approach doesn’t scale well, however. First, and most obviously, at this rate it will take another 20 years before you’ve learned the 2,136 kanji for everyday use. Secondly, the first 100 are mainly relatively simple shapes like 大 小 出 or 月; most kanji are more complex and less amenable to memorising in this way. And thirdly, while it may be possible to learn one or two hundred kanji as random shapes in this way, in my opinion there is an upper limit which falls very far short of 2,000 – it is simply not possible to retain this volume of information in the human brain.

Fortunately, more complex kanji are made up of simpler elements combined in various ways. If we know the 3 simple kanji 立—stand up,日—sun and 心—heart, then when it comes to time to learn the character —mind, we only have to remember that it consists of these three familiar forms stacked on top of one another. If we are using the Heisig method, we will make up a little story involving the concepts stand up, sun, heart and mind that will engage our imaginative memory.

We also find that the shapes that make up a character may give some clue as to its meaning, or its pronunciation; a kanji containing the fish radical 魚 is likely to be a type of fish, and a kanji containing the element 青 is likely to have a pronunciation sei. Combine these two and you get 鯖 mackerel, which is indeed a type of fish and has the (Chinese) pronunciation sei.

2) In learning the simplest 100 kanji, you will have formed the incorrect impression that each character represents a single unit of meaning (i.e. is an ideograph), and that once you have learned the meaning of each character you will be able to read Japanese text. This is a fundamental, and extremely widespread, misunderstanding of the Japanese writing system. In reality, most kanji characters do not stand alone, but combine to form words. In technical terms, Japanese writing is almost entirely not ideographic but logographic.*

To illustrate this point, first take the simple kanji 子, which you are taught as a stand-alone word having the sound [ko] and meaning “child”. This kanji appears in hundreds of words such as 様子 yousu—state of affairs; 帽子boushi—hat; 障子shouji—screen door; 電子 denshi—electron; 扇子 sensu—fan; and so on. It would be difficult or impossible to deduce the meaning (or pronunciation) of any of these words by reference to its two constituent characters.

Therefore to read Japanese, it does not suffice to learn each character individually. Instead you have to learn to read words.

Nonetheless, the learner persists in expecting each new kanji to have a well-defined meaning, an expectation which is simply not always borne out. Above I mentioned the kanji 意  and glossed it as “mind”. But it is not in any sense true to say that 意  means “mind”. It is merely a pedagogical convenience, with some considerable potential to mislead. What has really happened is that having looked at some words in which this character appears, words with meanings like “intention”, “will”, “meaning”, “unexpected”, “attention”, and so on, we ask ourselves “what semantic content is carried by this character in these words?” Well, in each case it seems to have something to do with the mind, or state of mind, or consciousness. So as an aid for learning, we may choose to say this character 意  means “mind”, as long as we remember to bear in mind that it is not in fact an ideograph with this meaning.

3) When starting out, it seems that we can easily keep score of how many kanji we know. But gradually troubling questions start to arise, like “What does it really mean to say that I ‘know’ a character”. In our first year we learn the kanji 生 with the pronunciation sei, mainly because it appears in the word 先生 sensei—teacher. Over time you may also learn that the same kanji can be pronounced nama—fresh, and that it is found in the verbs 生まれる umareru—to be born, and 生ける ikeru—to live. Suppose you know all of these pronunciations and meanings, but don’t yet know that it is also used in 生やす hayasu—to grow (e.g. to grow a beard). At what stage can you say that you “know” this kanji? How many kanji do you know?


* By the way, it’s worth mentioning that, while the Japanese writing system is logographic, so also is the English writing system. Although the letters of our Roman alphabet have phonetic values (and these are referred to when learning to read), when we actually read a text we do not sound out each word, but perceive each word as a gestalt, the shape of the word being directly associated with its sound and its meaning. This fact is missed by proponents of spelling reform, who think the world would be much tidier if “hare” and “hair” were spelt the same way. While such reforms may make it easier to learn to read, they would make it much harder to read.

Similarly, many foreigners wonder why the Japanese persist in using kanji, when the language could in principle be written entirely using hiragana. There are of course many reasons, but the main one is that Japanese written entirely in kana would be very difficult to read. Kanji are hard to learn, but once learned they convey meaning very efficiently.

Note on the word of the day:

漢字 kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. The first character refers to the Han dynasty of China (3rd century BC). The word is written in the same way in Chinese (but using simplified characters in mainland China), and is pronounced “Hanzi”.

狸 tanuki

Last weekend we went for a long walk with the dogs, and we saw some 狸 tanuki.

Tanuki are a Japanese wild animal, and their English name is “raccoon dogs”. This particular family of tanuki live in a kofun, where they are safe from human interference.

Back in the 1950s, this kofun was going to be demolished and turned into housing. You can see in the pictures the remains of a concrete bridge that was put in place to allow access for construction vehicles. Some damage was done to the kofun, but the plans were reversed, the kofun reverted to its wild condition, and the bridge fell down. Good news for the tanuki.

Sometimes people feed them by throwing them food such as oranges, and they emerge from the forest onto the remains of the bridge.

Both our dogs were fascinated by the tanuki and stared at them intently for the whole time we were there.

So the tanuki is a real, live animal, but that’s not the full story. In effect there are two tanuki: the real animal and the tanuki of Japanese folklore.

There are lots of these tanuki statues, outside the front door of people’s homes, bars and shops. They depict a toothy, mischievous animal, standing upright and wearing a woven straw hat. He carries a walking stick, a bottle of sake and some promissory notes. He has big round eyes, a belly like a drum and enormous testicles. The statue is intended to encourage you to be free-spending like the tanuki, to come in and eat and drink, not to be mean with money.

The best known feature of the mythical tanuki is his enormous “moneybags”. In some statues his kinbukuro is so grotesquely oversized that he carries it slung over his shoulder like a sack. The symbolism is “increasing prosperity” or “increasing luck”. In the stories, he can extend it to cover an area of 8 tatami mats. In the film Ponpoko, we see the elder tanuki addressing a large number younger members of the tribe seated in front of him. He has made a mat big enough for all of them to sit on, but when he retracts it they all tumble over. In another memorable scene, a group of tanuki use their kinbukuro as parachutes. A children’s song says “tan-tan-tanuki, even when there isn’t any wind his balls are swinging”.

The tanuki, like the fox, is a shape-shifter. He can take on different forms, including human form. (Conversely, in some stories we see attackers gaining access to a castle while disguised as tanuki. Which raises some questions like: why would the castle guard allow a troupe of tanuki to come in? And how do you disguise yourself as a tanuki anyway?)

Anyway, the tanuki of folktales loves to play tricks on strangers. He can make leaves look like money and dung look like delicious food. He can make the sound of festival drums in the forest by drumming on his big round belly. He can fool ordinary people but he also likes to take on the form of monks and buddhas so as to confound learned people.

This “cute” little tanuki statue is holding an owl.The owl is one of tanuki’s friends. The story goes that the twelve zodiac animals had a poetry competition and tanuki wanted to take part, but wasn’t allowed because he wasn’t a zodiac animal. So he leads a group of other rejected animals: the owl, the crow, the fox and the weasel, to attack the twelve. In the end of the story, he leaves his family to become a monk.

Note on the word of the day:

The kanji for tanuki: 狸 has a “beast” radical (kemonohen) on the left-hand side. Many kanji characters for different kinds of animals have this radical, such as: 猫 neko—cat; 猪 inoshishi—boar; 狐 kitsune—fox; 狼 ookami—wolf; 猿 saru—monkey. In practice, however, names of animals are very often written in katakana or hiragana, and very few animal names are included in the list of kanji for everyday use.

表札 hyousatsu—nameplate

We got a nameplate for our front door on Friday.

It has our surname written in katakana: コノリー konorii, and in romaji.

Every house has to have a nameplate, because houses don’t really have addresses the way they do in Ireland. There are no street names or house numbers. Instead, the address is a bit like a postcode. So without a nameplate, it is very hard for the postman or delivery person to find the house.

Nameplates are made of tile or stone, or traditionally of wood, and show the surname of the family living in the house. It is relatively rare to see a nameplate with two surnames, because usually people in the same household share the same surname. A married couple is not allowed to retain two different surnames: the wife may take the husband’s surname, or (less commonly) the husband may take the wife’s surname or they may choose a new surname.

Normally the husband is the registered head of the household, but in Japan a registered alien may not be the head of the household, so Yuko is the head of our household.

Sometimes also the nameplate includes the first name of the head of the household. This person’s name is 中野 亮三郎 (possibly Nakano Ryousaburou or Akisaburou):

The majority of Japanese surnames consist of two kanji characters. Because they are normally fairly simple characters, even a learner like me can read most surnames. For example:

This is the 谷口 Taniguchi household, where the two characters used are 谷 tani—valley and 口 kuchi—mouth. These are simple kanji learned at Grade 2 and Grade 1 level respectively.

First names are a different matter entirely. They very often use obscure kanji and very non-standard pronunciations. In fact, it is often the case that a particular pronunciation is unique to that particular name. For example the character 亮, used in the name 亮三郎 above can be pronounced as akiakirasukemakotoyoshikyou, or in other ways. These special pronunciations used in names are called nanori. It may be impossible even for Japanese people to know how to pronounce someone else’s name, as different names may be written with the same characters. For this reason, you may see little furigana characters written beside someone’s name, as a pronunciation guide.

A minority of Japanese surnames are written with 3 kanji or a single kanji, as in this example (南 Minami—a Grade 2 kanji meaning “south”):

Sometimes the name is written in romaji as well as kanji. I’ve no idea what the “1718” represents!

A note on the word of the day:

表札 hyousatsu means “nameplate” and is written with two kanji characters: 表 whose meaning is something like “surface” or “front side” and 札 which normally refers to a banknote or playing card and in this case means a flat plate or placard.

お湯 o-yu—hot water

For Japanese people, a bath—お風呂 o-furo—is a way to relax and soak away the stresses of the day, or to warm yourself when you are chilled on a cold day.

The purpose of the bath is not to wash yourself. In fact, it is important to be thoroughly clean before you get into the bath, because the bath water will be kept and reused. So you shower outside the bath.

The bathroom is a “wet room”, with a shower fitting and tap but no separate shower cubicle. The water drains away under the floor. Traditionally you wash yourself while seated on a low wooden stool, using a wooden bucket which you fill with hot water and pour over yourself. Nowadays, the little stool and bucket are often made of moulded plastic, as seen here.

The shower head can be placed in one of two brackets at different heights: one suitable for showering while seated on the little stool, and the other for washing standing up.

The bathtub itself is deeper than at home, allowing you to immerse yourself up to your neck in water two feet deep. There is no overflow runoff, so you can fill it right to the brim if you want.Traditional Japanese baths were made of wood, but in modern homes they are usually made of stainless steel or acrylic.

There is a gas-fired on-demand water heating system, controlled using this high-tech control panel:

From left to right, the buttons are for “automatic”, “reheat”, on/off and “call”. On the panel you can see the actual bath-water temperature, the current time and the temperature set point.

If you flip down the little door, some additional controls are revealed:

The bath has a “reheat” facility so that the water can be left in the bath overnight and recirculated back through the heater (and filter) for use the following day. The bathtub has a cover, presumably to keep the water free from dust, insects, etc.

When the bathwater has been used several times, the (still clean) water can be pumped to the washing machine for use in washing clothes.

Note on the word of the day:

In Japanese, the word お湯 o-yu means hot water. This word for hot water is separate from the ordinary word for water, 水 mizu. It would be incorrect Japanese to refer to hot water as atsui mizu, in much the same way as in English it would be wrong to say “solid water” instead of using the special word “ice”. This suggests that, in Japanese culture, hot water (for example, for tea or for a bath) is considered to be a different substance from water, just as ice is a different substance, although they are chemically identical.

The Japanese word お風呂 o-furo means bath, and may be a bath in a private home or a public bath (銭湯 sentou), which if it uses local naturally-heated mineral water is an 温泉 onsen, and if it is outdoors open to the sky is a 露天風呂   rotenburo.

One of my favourite memories of Japan is of sitting in a hot outdoor bath on a steep cedar-covered mountain slope, immersed up to my neck in hot water as snow fell gently on my head and shoulders. These guys seem to like it too: