柿 kaki—persimmon

The hillsides of Wakayama are covered with fruit trees. At this time of year, the bright orange persimmons and mandarins are a colourful sight.

They also grow huge kiwis:

I was surprised to learn that kiwis grow on trees, looking very much like grape vines (rather than on bushes low to the ground).

There is a huge variety of different kinds of citrus fruit in Japan, with amazing flavours and names like yuzu, shiikwasa, amanatsu, buntan. These ones (maybe dekopon or maybe a kind of grapefruit) are still green.

Running up and down the steep hillsides were miniature funicular monorail tracks. The trains consisted of a tiny engine (with a pull-start motor) hauling a single trailer. The purpose is to allow the farmers to tend trees and harvest fruits in inaccessible parts of their steep hillside holdings. Some of the tracks ran straight up hair-raisingly steep slopes; the idea of driving one of the little trains up (or down) there is terrifying.

Here’s a picture of one of the trains. Sorry the engine is covered so you can’t see it.

Some of the persimmon fruits are grown in individual plastic bags. It’s fairly common in Japan for high-value fruit to be protected in this way.

We saw all this today when we went hillwalking on 龍門山 ryuumon-zan, (“dragon gate mountain”) in Wakayama.

At the head of the trail there was a charming sign in the form of a haiku.

It says:

消さないで kesanaide

小さな命の chiisana inochi no

帰る場所 kaeru basho

Another interesting thing about this mountain is the serpentine rocks, which are strongly magnetic. I demonstrated to Shiro using my compass, and he was amazed.

There is a cave on the mountain, a deep vertical shaft with a narrow opening, descending seemingly forever into the heart of the mountain. It is called fuuketsu, the cave of the wind.

The story goes that a dragon once lived in this cave, the dragon that gave the mountain its name. At that time, the region was troubled by monstrous giant spiders, like Shelob. The dragon emerged from the cave and killed the spiders.

It seems the dragon wore a huge rock on its head known as myoujin iwa, which now stands 25 metres tall on the mountainside, serving as a (somewhat scary) platform for viewing the surrounding countryside.

Some of the leaves are starting to show their autumn colours. In a week or so it will be truly spectacular.

We had a good close-up view of this hang-glider. His manoeuvres and tight turns were very impressive. Miffy was very angry and barking at this huge “bird” as it swooped past.

After coming down the mountain, we found an improvised vending machine, where you could buy a whole bag of mandarins or persimmons for 200 yen.

I have written before about the high price of fruit in Japan, so these prices are just unbelievable. We bought one bag of each. They are absolutely delicious.

勉強 benkyou—study

Regular readers will have noticed that my blog is a little quiet recently. That’s because I have a Japanese exam in just three weeks (2nd December) and I’m trying to study as much as I can.

The exam is the nihongo nouryoku shiken—Japanese language proficiency test, commonly known as JLPT.

The JLPT takes place in centres all over the world, in July and December. The easiest level is level N5, and from there the difficulty increases to level N1, which tests near-native level ability (e.g. for university entrants).

Over the years I have done the old level 4 and 3 (equivalent to N5 and N4), then (last year) the new level N3. This year, I am attempting N2, which is way beyond my actual level of ability, but a stretch target is always good for motivation!

JLPT exams test vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening. They do not test your ability to write or speak. (In technical terms, they test recognition, not reproduction.) Preparation for the exam involves a lot of rote learning – lots of vocabulary items, kanji characters and grammatical structures – and a lot of practice.

The practice is key. Someone who is good at Japanese but casually decides to do the exam is liable to fail, whereas someone (like me) who is not at all good at Japanese but has spent months learning, studying and practising will have a chance of passing.

Two reasons are:

  • the exam is very perfectionist (as is typical of exam culture in Japan), and the questions can be deliberately tricky. If you think you might know the answer but you’re not sure, you’re probably wrong. Someone unfamiliar with the exam will probably not realise this;
  • the time available for the exam is very short, especially for the reading section. If you go in unprepared, you will run out of time. One of the hardest things is to keep moving on to the next question, while knowing that if you spent a little bit longer on this question you could figure it out and get it right.

My most important learning tool is Anki. It’s a flash-card program that runs on my phone and on my computer, and allows me to learn vocabulary and kanji on the train or even while walking. It is an incredibly powerful learning method. Without Anki, I wouldn’t have a chance.

So, if you don’t see many posts here over the next three weeks (though there will be a few), now you know why.