Blog to Book

こんにちわ!It’s a bank holiday weekend over here and while that should mean sunshine, beaches and cocktails, in reality it’s grey skies and days in watching films and nursing hangovers. And writing my book. Yes, you read that right! People have been telling me for ages that I should publish something and so I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and spend monstrous amounts of time burning the midnight oil writing all about my year in Japan. You’ve had little snippets on this blog already of course, but rather than simply package up the posts into print form I’m going to write a whole load of other material to compliment them; more anecdotes, more observations and (hopefully) more laughs. I would have done it earlier but I wasn’t really sure how. After starting to write a book about an awful piece of software called Remedyforce, which I seem to have become an expert in thanks to being a Yes Man at work, I soon realised that writing about something I hate using was probably not very conducive to good health. I stopped, and then a few weeks later, started writing about one of the most incredible years of my life. And do you know what? I’m really, really enjoying it. It’s making me nostalgic 24/7. Japan is never far from my mind anyway – I’m always listening to Japanese podcasts, watching Japanese films, studying Japanese on my commute, eating Japanese foods – but writing the book is bringing back all the thoughts and feelings I had before and during my time there. It’s making me grateful I went, and it’s making me long to go again.

Now if I can only write a best-seller, maybe I can quit the day-job and spend the rest of my life living in foreign countries and writing about it. Not that I’m getting carried away or anything.

Killer Circuits

Remember that bit about crawling out of the gym on my hands and knees? Well it happened yesterday. I’d been over at IgnitePT on Thursday doing squats, walking lunges, overhead presses, bent-over barbell rows and stiff-legged deadlifts so my legs were feeling about and strong and powerful as two bags of sand. Roll onto Friday and Gavin asks me where I’m aching most as per usual. “My legs mainly,” I say, “my upper body feels alright at the moment.” I say this assuming the reply will be something sensible like “Ok well let’s do some upper body work today,” but instead he says, “Alright then, five minutes on the bike and then join me upstairs.” I know what this means immediately and secretly roll my eyes as soon as his back is turned. There are no weights upstairs you see, only kettlebells, swinging hoops, treadmills and other objects of torture that only barely missed getting delivered to the London Dungeon by mistake on account of the pretty colours in which they are painted. “Look at me,” they scream, “I’m bright blue and red so I must be fun!” but they don’t fool me, oh no. I take one look at the assault course he’s laid out for me and briefly consider turning around, running down the stairs and munching through a box of twelve Krispy Kreme doughnuts while sobbing and mumbling that I knew I wouldn’t be able to cut it. Only for a second though. Instead, I bravely march forth.

For the next 40 minutes I was sprint-pushing a heavy sled back and forth across the length of the gym, jumping on and off a box as high as my thigh, squatting and pressing kettlebells above my head, doing press-ups and deadlifts on a heavier set of kettlebells, lifting a heavy bag above my head and putting it down again and finally, holding the plank position for as long as I could before my whole body finally filled up with lactic acid and I shuddered to the floor in pools of my own sweat. I did this four times and then I ate a kebab in protest.

Despite this, I can already see a difference. Only three weeks in and my waistline is noticeably trimmer. I have more energy in the afternoons and the diet really isn’t that bad at all; I’m even, dare I say, actually quite enjoying it. Cutting out rice, potatoes, bread and pasta means that I never, ever get that stuffed-to-the-brim I’m-going-to-sleep feeling that I often get after a curry loaded with rice or a foot-long Subway sandwich at lunch. I have 4 eggs for breakfast, a tin of tuna for a mid-morning snack, left-overs from last night for lunch, protein shake and some cashew nuts for an afternoon snack and meat and vegetables for dinner. Not only am I saving obscene amounts of money on lunches during the week but I’m getting back into cooking varied and healthy meals – something I used to love but stopped doing when I was living in Japan on account of the weather being so hot you could barely move; I would have rather stuck pins in my eyes than turn on a hot stove and start chopping vegetables. That and having a ramen shop on every street corner meant that I very rarely cooked indoors at all, a habit that unfortunately carried on after I was back in sunny old England.

Today my legs are screaming in pain but incredibly, I’m looking forward to my next session on Tuesday. When people say they’re addicted to the gym they’re lying. No-one actually likes the pain and monotony of pushing heavy weights around (with some exceptions obviously) but you definitely get addicted to the changes in yourself. As soon as you start to see the fruits of your labour you want more, and you stick to the diet with even greater vigour, and put more effort into each workout knowing that the more you put in, the more you stand to gain.

Schwarzenegger

Things are afoot at Ramblin’ HQ. Spurred on by the fact that winter is finally behind us (say it enough times and it might come true) I’ve decided to come out of hibernation and become interesting again. “But Bobby, you were interesting already!” I hear you all cry and to you I hold up my glass and say “Cheers!” and you, with your glass held high, stand ready in that glorious salute awaiting that satisfying clink. But at the last minute you grimace and shrink back into the now darkened alcove in which we stand. “Is that… diet coke?” you ask in disgust. I hang my head in shame and mumble noises of admission.

No need to panic. I have not gone teetotal, but I have hired a personal trainer who says a lot of things I like are bad. Beer is bad for instance. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that but there it is in black and white for you all to swear at. You know what else is bad? Fruit. “Errr, don’t be ridiculous you need 5 a day, everyone knows that.” Yeah well fruit has sugar in it. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate (the worst kind, as it happens) and carbohydrates make you fat. “No but the sugar in fruit is fructose, it’s not the same.” Turns out it is the same as far as making you fat is concerned, and I’m only allowed one piece a day – berries preferably due to their lower sugar content. I’m also not allowed bread, potatoes, rice or pasta, and he’s told me to curb the sugar as well. That last one isn’t really a problem for me as I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But bread? Noodles? Dear God, what have I done?!

“He” is Gavin Gillibrand, co-founder of Ultimate City Fitness and trainer of 15 years to dozens of tired, unfit city-dwellers like myself. As of last Tuesday (9th April) I now see him 3 times a week for 45 minutes when he gets me to lift, push and pull very heavy things until I’m sweating and cursing and then tells me that I’m not allowed any bread, except maybe, and I quote, “after a really, really hard session where you’re practically crawling out of the door on your hands and knees.” We won’t be doing anything like that just yet he assures me, but it’s only a matter of time. During which I’ll be living on a diet of meat, fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables, eggs and cottage cheese. Time to crack out the Yotam Ottolenghi cook books.

What is this all in aid of then? I’d like to pretend it’s all in the name of fitness and general well-being but there is a large portion of vanity involved here. Losing the belly and packing on some muscle is part of the aim, but I also want to get back into rock climbing after a 3 year hiatus, and that means making sure I have the strength to complement my already good technical level.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress here as well as a few other little projects I have up my sleeve but for now, here’s a bit of Dylan Moran just to keep us all sane:

Lucky Man

Got a little treat for you today. I found an old post from the Japan days that was never published because I could never quite figure out how to finish it. All done now though! Enjoy…

It’s 23°C outside today. Normally anyone would consider this to be a nice, comfortable temperature but in Japan this is only the case before June. Today the humidity is at 82%. Interestingly, I used to think that humidity was the actual amount of water in the air. I thought this up until about two years ago when the weather report said that humidity levels were at 100% and, inexplicably, it wasn’t raining outside. How the hell is this possible? I thought to myself, and then ran to to my computer to find out. It turns out that humidity is the saturation level; the amount of water vapour the atmosphere contains. The higher the saturation, the less water it can take on, i.e. the less that can evaporate into it. This is why your clothes don’t dry in high humidity, and why your sweat pools in your hair and then drips embarrassingly on your students’ worksheets when you’re trying to help them with something. You sweat the same amount but it just doesn’t evaporate.

You probably already knew this and, despite nobody having done it since the 90′s, will say “well duh” at your computer screens. If there is 1 person that didn’t know however, then writing that paragraph was well worth the effort since you will no doubt be feeling as if you have just discovered one of the great secrets of the universe, as did I. Personally, I blame my geography teachers. You should too. I learnt everything there is to learn about U-shaped valleys and glaciers but they couldn’t tell me about a percentage we see on the TV every day?

Anyway, this weekend I went to Hamamatsu for a speech contest. One of my students from the after-school International Club wrote a piece about the importance of English on the international stage, and how she wanted Japan to introduce gap years so she could travel, see the world and grow as a person. She, a low-level English student from a technical high-school, was up against a whole bunch of English prodigies from various high-level schools with dedicated English courses, exchange programs and Matrix-style machines that you plug directly into your brain in order to upload the entire works of Shakespeare in a pinch. Probably. Considering the competition, she did spectacularly well. She memorised the whole thing, stumbling at only one point and recovering well. She worked hard on her pronunciation, and spent hours perfecting speech patterns and incorporating a few gestures, and she delivered the whole thing with ne’er a hint of nervousness. Indeed, I think I may have been more nervous than her.

The competition as a whole was outstanding. I’d heard that the entrants were going to be good but many of them spoke better, and with more passion than many native speakers from the UK or America. They looked incredibly natural – often as if English was their native language – and spoke about issues that were dear to their hearts. Attending this competition meant that I could not only offer my support to my school’s own budding prime minister, but that I also had a chance to spend a good few hours with some of my students outside of school. A couple of them never have any problems chatting to me in school but most of them are pretty shy, so this was a fantastic opportunity to draw them out of their shells a little bit; swapping music tips, speaking in Japanese as well as English, poking fun at each other, etc. It made for a really nice day out where usually I would have spent the entire time in the house on my computer as seems to be the pathetic norm these days (pathetic to everyone else; divine, self-imposed isolation to me). If you’re lucky, a great day out will also incorporate a train journey…

If you have never listened to Bon Iver – Skinny Love before please do so before/while you continue reading so you know what the hell I’m talking about. You’ll be seriously glad you did. You can find it here (make sure you choose the original and not one of the dodgy remixes). Is it playing? Good. Now, with this being such an incredible, emotive song it has a tendency to make you feel the same way; as if everything matters a little bit more. It’s the kind of song that you’d put on the soundtrack to a film after a girl just broke up with the main character in the rain outside a cafe in Portabello Road; this being the final straw in a long list of collapses that involved losing his job, his mum, his dad and everything else that is important to him in a short space of time. He walks through puddles crying, without direction or purpose, sparks up a cigarette for the first time in years and retires to his lush Notting Hill apartment to brood. Don’t worry though, in this story I just made up he bounces back and becomes a world-class fashion designer with meaningful relationships and a bunch of kids with whom he spends all his free time. He also has a sex change because he’s always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body and this is the only way he can feel true to himself. His kids understand. His wife doesn’t but she’ll get over it.

I digress. Coupling this song with a journey on the train while you’re staring out the window makes you more pensive than Einstein after five Ritalin and a weekend break in a Buddhist monastery. This feeling only gets better when it’s raining outside. Why do I mention all this now? Well, apart from the love of just going off on a ridiculous tangent I genuinely felt that this was a special, life-affirming day – definitely one of the better ones since I’ve been here – and it was topped off by one of my favourite things in the world; a train journey in Japan with the rain beating on the roof and great music in my ears. I stared out the window at nothing in particular and smiled.

Warsaw, Poland

IMG_4443 (Medium)Since my company changed its overtime policy earlier this year I seem to have ended up with rather a lot time off in lieu. At the beginning of August (after I’d just taken a week off to sit in Finsbury Park and read) my team lead took me to one side and said:

“Now look here; it’s August and you still have 25 days left. You need to start taking some.”

IMG_4446 (Medium)It’s not every day your team lead tells you to take holiday. So I did. One week every month for the rest of the year in fact. I was very happy about this. Thing is though, while I should be taking flights to here there and everywhere, there are only so many holidays a man can afford so for the most part I just sat around at home playing computer games and video-conferencing friends in far flung parts of the globe. I couldn’t face doing this again in December (no offence to my Skype friends intended) so I jumped onto the FlightChecker on MoneySavingExpert.com and searched for the cheapest flights to anywhere in Europe for a 3 night stay. First up… Warsaw, Poland. Three things instantly popped into my mind upon reading this:

  1. Joy Division (who wrote a song called “Warsaw” about Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the first half of the war)
  2. The Second World War
  3. COLD

The only images I could conjure up were of an emaciated Adrian Brody, walking across piles of rubble searching for scraps of food in The Pianist. I knew absolutely nothing of post-war Warsaw, or even Poland for that matter, besides the fact that there were apparently legions of hot raven-haired women and cheap beer. Both those things appealed to me greatly of course, but I am also deeply fascinated by WWII so I figured, why not? How cold can it really be anyway? Adrian Brody didn’t have thermal underwear and he still made it; and he was getting shot at by bloody Nazis.

the_pianist

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My next dilemma was where to stay. When I went to Rome in June I picked the hostel with the best reputation for partying. This was fine on the first night because I just went down to the bar on the Saturday evening, made loads of friends and went clubbing but the second night I had been out walking all day and couldn’t wait to just read a book and pass out. In my 8 bed dorm at the front of the building with the noisiest fan in the world, no air conditioning and an all-night party outside. Hmm.

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I figured that evening, lying in bed staring at the ceiling while willing the snorer in the bunk below to choke to death on his own tongue, that I don’t actually need to do this any more. I’m not a penniless traveller trying to save money in every city I go to; I’m a working professional on holiday. The only reason I actually stay in hostels is so I can hang out with cool people while I’m away and in most places you can go to the hostel bar without actually needing to stay there anyway. So this time I booked a 4 star hotel, the Radisson Blu Sobieski, not far from the city centre. I had not one bed, but two, my own bathroom, room service, clothes hangers, a safe and a mini bar. Not to mention my own old man’s chair where I could sit, fingers on chin, and contemplate the day.

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The flight was delayed by 6 hours. That is a loooong time to be sat in Luton airport, believe me. I solved logic problems and tweeted to Wizz Air. They laughed. Only because I was trying to be funny though; I’m pretty sure they don’t usually laugh at their customers. Actually the only thing I could complain about were the people I was flying with and there wasn’t a great deal the airline could do about that; the all-important Screaming Child : Silent Adult ratio was skewed quite obscenely in the wrong direction. I discovered a helpful little trick on the way back, however… They all go in the front. Pick a seat near the back entrance and the journey is blissfully quiet. There’s one for your little book of holiday tips!

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Once we touched down in Poland I walked off the plane into a snow-drenched airport and a blast of cold air that enveloped me like a bath of liquid nitrogen. It was then a half hour wait for a bus, an hour ride on said bus (while the driver attempted to compensate for the nitrogen bath by melting our faces off with the on-board heating), and a short 10 minute walk and I was greeted at the hotel by Carsten, a friend of mine who popped up from Berlin for the night. It was midnight, so naturally we stepped out to find a club and ended up in “The Opera House,” a catacomb-y type place with red brick tunnels, red lighting, cheesy house music, a live violinist and beers for £2.50. It was free to get in and free to use the cloakroom. It was also warm. Oh so warm. Two Żywiecs and a Jägerbomb later and we were on the dance floor busting out moves that would make James Brown weep. With joy obviously.

IMG_4471 (Medium)Apart from this little escapade much of my time was spent chilling out, eating, drinking coffee and poking around the various districts of Warsaw. I also tried out my theory for infiltrating hostel bars, which worked a treat, and spent an evening playing card games with some new Polish, Dutch and Italian friends. Thoughts of the war prevailed thanks to the overwhelming number of communist buildings everywhere and the general look and feel of the place. Everything you look at seems to conjure up an image from one holocaust film or another, but then you walk around a corner and there’s a mass of steel and glass skyscrapers reminding you that democracy and capitalism did finally arrive after all (in 1989 for those of you that are wondering). I bought a book on the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 to try and fill in some blanks, which was lucky because I managed to get flu on Monday and ended up spending the rest of the holiday in the hotel room.

IMG_4454 (Medium)A bit of a mixed bag then, this holiday. A good break from London but I’m left thinking that maybe I should just save up and go somewhere warm for my winter holidays. If for no other reason than to avoid catching a cold and having to spend another plane journey with head that feels like it’s going to explode every time I cough! I’ll save the European trips for the summer (ski holidays excluded obviously).

Ramble On

It’s been a while, I know. You could put it down to laziness, maybe writers block or even a lack of material but the end result is the same. I’ve neglected you, and I’m sorry. Way back when I started blogging in 2006 I used it as a way to keep in contact with friends and family while I was travelling around the world. Rather than just writing online letters with a few pictures thrown in I started to experiment with reviews and anecdotes for all the places I’d been. When you’re travelling to places many readers have never been, it’s easy to find things to write about that people will find interesting. Every day is an adventure, or a potential disaster, and both make great reading material (with the latter actually always offering more laughs). Likewise when I was living in Japan, there was simply no end to the amount of material available, I mean, seriously! Train men that randomly point at things for no apparent reason? Builders that dance together in the morning and then wave mini-lightsabers at passing cars? Old ladies on bikes? Raw eggs? Chicken testicles on sticks?! That place is a blogger’s treasure trove!

England though. I love the place, really I do, but it’s totally and utterly normal. All two of my readers live here already according to my little map statistics (alright, maybe one or two in America as well) and the discovery of cultural insights that people don’t already know about is tough and, well, basically the domain of professional stand-up comedians, and I certainly don’t purport to be as witty or clever as the likes of Ross Noble.

What does one write about then? Politics? Dry. TV? Never watch it (unless you count the 72,000 episodes of the latest series of Masterchef: The Professionals or the continual onslaught of Grand Designs and Man V. Food repeats). TV is just something you have on the background while you’re eating so you can avoid having one of those “conversation” thingies and besides, Charlie Brooker’s got that locked down already.

At the beginning of this year I played with the idea of doing a different challenge every month and actually, January 2012 was probably the most productive month of my whole life; I learned 500 kanji, a couple of hundred Japanese words, drank so much green tea that I anti-oxidised the air around me wherever I walked and got back into weight training after my broken hand had finally healed. As with so many New Year’s Resolutions though, the idea was dead by February. You don’t realise how difficult it is to do the same thing every day until you do it, and then you feel like it’s the only thing you ever do, even if it’s only an hour or two every day. It also serves to show how much time we waste sitting idly around watching TV or surfing the Internet.

That pretty much takes me right back to where I started – travel – and with my fateful trip to Italy earlier this year, a recent trip to Poland and a bout of flu preventing me from doing much besides lying in bed reading, heating up some Heinz Cream of Chicken soup or staring at a computer screen, you can probably expect another entry or two in the next couple of days.

Japanese: Uncovered

I am placed in a rather unique situation at work (for England at least) whereby there are something like 9 different languages spoken in our team of 10 people. There are, in no particular order, speakers of Urdu, Arabic, Gujarati, Greek, Swedish, Japanese, Russian, Belarusian and a Nigerian dialect of English. I may even have missed one or two. Certainly in all the English-speaking places I have lived and worked before most people will speak English, and only English; but that’s not to say that people don’t have an interest in learning other languages. People will often dreamily announce “Oh I wish I could speak another language,” or “I’d love to speak (Italian) but I just don’t have the time.” I had always said the same. I even went on an Italian course 1 night a week to try and kick-start things but the only thing I can remember how to say now is “Can I have a glass of red wine, please?” Useful, but hardly nearing the fluency required to impress a long-legged, olive-skinned Italian goddess with my in-depth knowledge of graphics cards and central processing units.

I failed at Italian because no-one had ever taught me HOW to learn a language and exactly WHAT to study and practice. Had I figured it out by going to Italy and being forced to learn the language I would have, perhaps, got much further in a much shorter space of time. But I wasn’t going to Italy; I was going to Japan, and I either had to learn Japanese or spend my entire year there confused and disorientated. As it happened I ended up doing both but I hope, in a slightly less confused manner than I would have had I simply remained in a little expat bubble.

To those who have never been lucky enough to learn Japanese, the written language is a mishmash of mystical symbols and pictures, and the spoken word just an endless stream of syllables where no-one takes a breath for 3 minutes at a time, and being too expressive with one’s voice is considered rather odd. The notion of ever being able to speak it, let alone read it, is a monumental task that most normal people leave up to the manga geeks and cosplay nuts. Look deeper however and you will find that it is endlessly fascinating, constantly surprising and actually, rather logical in its construction. For those cunning linguists out there with a passion for languages in general, or for those who would simply like to know what all those mysterious little pictures actually mean, read on. American/Canadian readers take note, you may need to put on your best Hugh Grant impression when pronouncing the letters/words in bold so that you get the right Japanese-equivalent sound.

NB: The rest of this post contains Japanese characters. If you’re on Windows XP, you may need to install language support from here. Most other operating systems should provide support.

The Alphabets

Yes that is alphabets, plural. Four to be precise (well, 3 really but we’ll get into that in a bit) and you already know one of them:

  • Romaji (or the Roman alphabet to you and me)
  • Hiragana
  • Katakana
  • Kanji

This means that there are also 4 different ways to write many words. The word ‘bicycle’ for instance can be written (in the above order) as:

  • jitensha
  • じてんしゃ
  • ジテンシャ
  • 自転車

We’ll go into that in a bit.

Romaji

Yes, they all know and learn the Roman alphabet, but no that doesn’t mean they can read English (as I’m sure you will all know from reading the posts over the last year!). They use Romaji for a number of different things including, obviously, English words, but also for Japanese words they think just look cooler in Roman letters. When you see Japanese in phrase books, it will usually be written in Romaji because people don’t have time to learn 3 new alphabets for a quick 2 week holiday, but you should note that this is not Japanese; it is merely to help you pronounce Japanese words using letters for which you know the sounds. For example the Japanese word for I or me; in a phrase book you would see it written as watashi where in fact the Japanese is わたし. Which brings me nicely onto…

Hiragana

This is the original Japanese alphabet and it differs from the Roman alphabet in that almost every single character contains a vowel sound*. For example, sounds like she (or shi as written in Romaji), sounds like na (as in nappy), sounds like ka (as in karen). So rather than have a load of separate consonants and vowels which you can then combine in any number of crazy combinations and sounds like in English, you have a set number of 1-syllable sounds which you then just string together to make a word.

There are literally only 5 vowel sounds in the entire language. Yes, I know we have 5 vowels in English but I’m talking about vowel sounds. Take the vowel, o for example; put it in the word now and you get more of an a sound than an o, but stick an s on the front – snow – and the sound completely changes. In Japanese this never happens. A will always sound like ka wherever you put it in a sentence,  will always sounds like na and will always sound like shi.

For an English-speaker learning to speak Japanese this is a wonderful thing. It means that you don’t even have to listen to someone say a word for you to know how to say it; you just read the characters as you see them. For a Japanese-speaker learning English though, this gives them a serious handicap; try to get someone to tell you the difference between mood, mud, mode and mod and they will break down and have a fit there and then. Likewise, if you try to get a Japanese person to say ‘squirrel’ they will still be standing there trying 12 hours later.

Katakana

Katakana is used mainly for Japanese words that they want to ‘coolify,’ and for words that have been adopted from other languages, for example:

  • Coffee becomes コーヒー (pronounced core-hee)
  • Television becomes テレビ (pronounced teh-reh-bee)
  • Super becomes スーパー (pronounced sue-paah)

If you really listen hard, you can hear the English word behind it but usually only after you become trained at it. After I had learnt to read Katakana, Maria (another JET in my area) and I used to have to team-up to read menus; I would read them – very slowly – and repeat faster and faster until she could decipher the English word it was supposed to replicate.

I would understand its usage if they had never learnt the Roman alphabet (besides, who wants to learn Hiragana before you’re able to read, write and pronounce tsunami or karaoke?), but when they know how to read and write Roman letters it needlessly prevents kids from learning the proper spellings and sounds in English. All the characters look the same as well, for instance is shi and is tsu - both identical but for a slight change in the way they mock you as they grin outwards from the screen.

Kanji

These are the little pictographs that you’ve all seen in both Chinese and Japanese (the Japanese nicked them from China years ago), and if you’ve been reading my other posts recently then you’ll know that I am currently attempting to learn 1000 kanji before the end of the month. It’s not going very well but that’s one for another post. There are countless kanji in Chinese and Japanese though a common dictionary in Japan, the ‘Daikanwa,’ currently contains around 50,000. Luckily, only about 2 to 3 thousand are in common use in Japan. That is still quite a steep learning curve though, and if it wasn’t interesting I would have given up long ago.

Each and every kanji has a meaning. Sometimes one kanji will be be a word on its own, and sometimes it will form part of a word with other kanji. Take and for instance. means he/him/boyfriend, pronounced kah-reh, and means woman, pronounced on-na. If you put them together though – 彼女 – the pronunciation completely changes to ka-no-jo, and the meaning to she/girlfriend (in case you were wondering, the kanji for man is ).

How do you ever learn these? It really helps if you know the meanings of the individual kanji because you can often make up little stories in your head to help you remember what the word means – this is what I am doing at the moment. Sometimes though, you don’t even need to make up stories because it’s obvious from the meaning of the kanji alone. Remember bicycle? 自転車? Well  means oneself/itself means rotate/revolve and  means vehicle, so a vehicle that rotates itself is…? You get the picture. What you really need to do is learn as many words as you can in hiragana and then mass-learn all the kanji and their meanings when you think you’re ready. After that you can go back over all the words you learnt in hiragana and attach their pronunciation to the proper, kanji word.

Learning a foreign language has been a lot of hard work, but it has provided me with a great deal of fun, intrigue, and interactions with people I never would have spoken to had I not jumped into it head-first. If you’re one of those people who have always wanted to learn one then just start. Get a book and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

*The only exception to this is which is pronounced simply, n (by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and emitting a dull sound through your nose).