A New Quarantine Hobby

Some months ago, back when the coronavirus quarantine was really starting to get going, my wife and I found ourselves looking into new hobbies that we could do at home. She rediscovered Duolingo, and, a few days later, so did I. “Why not try studying the basics of a brand new language?” I thought, and motivated solely by the fact that I think it has one of the nicest-looking writing systems of any major language, I decided to pick up Arabic.
I also have a hobby of calligraphy, and make a habit of filling one (relatively small) page a day with some sort of writing practice. My first day of trying to write Arabic, shown above, was… not great. I will not be winning any calligraphy competitions with my first try, especially given embarrassing mistakes like the upside-down ُ in there. Over time, I got a little better, though. A few days later, I could at least remember to write things the right way up.
Arabic is a pretty interesting language, too, just from a linguistic standpoint (though, before I go any further, please let me remind you that I am still very new to the language, and by no means an expert!). Unlike English and Japanese, Arabic adjectives go after the nouns they modify (so instead of “big house,” you would say “بَيت كَبير”/bait kabir, or “house big”). Another interesting feature is that there’s apparently no Arabic word for “to be” — instead, you simply say, grammatically, “Omar teacher.” or “Rania chef.”
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of Arabic, to me, is how heavily gendered the language is, on a fundamental grammatical level. Linguists have noted that Japanese has very marked differences between how men and women speak, but that’s more sociocultural than grammatical. In Arabic, though, in addition to all nouns being either masculine or feminine (a trait it shares with many European languages), other aspects of the language have gender “baked in” on a fundamental level. For instance, much like how English has masculine and feminine third-person pronouns (“him” and “her”), Arabic actually extends this to second-person pronouns, with masculine and feminine forms of “you.” (As an aside, I found myself wondering how Arabic must handle things like prompts on computer screens to say things like “enter your password.” After a few moments, though, I realized that this probably isn’t a problem in practice, because Arabic writing omits short vowels — though the words for “you” or the suffixes used to indicate “your” have different vowel sounds to indicate masculine/feminine, usually these vowel sounds wouldn’t be written at all for native adult speakers, so something like ما اسمك, or “what is your name,” would simply be read with the appropriate vowels added for the reader.)
One separate matter that I’ve found myself thinking about is that, when learning a new writing system, there’s a weird relationship between “writing neatly” and “writing like a native speaker.” A nonnative adult who is a complete beginner will initially write in a way that looks sloppy and wrong, in a nonnative way, but with practice nonnative speakers can make their handwriting look much nicer and more legible. However, this often winds up looking “nonnative” in its own way, as it will often be too neat, or perhaps a little too closely based on how printed text looks. So the final step, for learners of new languages, is to study the way that native speakers write quickly and a little sloppily, but in a way that everyone is familiar with, and can read, as a result. Needless to say, I am nowhere near that point yet with Arabic, but I’ve at least found study materials specifically on how native speakers write for everyday purposes and for calligraphy. I doubt I’ll ever even make it to the point where I can have much of a conversation in Arabic, but it’s been an interesting hobby nonetheless, and I always enjoy the experience of having an unfamiliar writing system gradually change from “cool-looking squiggles” to “text” in my brain.

Hunting for Bugs, in a Sense

It should come as no surprise that, much like the rest of the world, I have been:
  1. Not been going outside unless necessary
  2. Playing a great deal of Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing has proven to be quite a delight for a number of reasons (including the extremely good localization job done by Nintendo), but perhaps chief among them has been the way that it neatly fits a hobby I’ve had for a while now, for whatever reason. For years, now, I’ve been fond of photographing bugs and other small creatures when I encounter them when I’m out. Now that there’s more pressure not to go out unless necessary, there’s been less time for that hobby, but on the other hand, it’s been nice to have Animal Crossing available — and it’s been very interesting to note just how Japanese the various bugs are that are depicted in-game.
For instance, these jewel beetles can be found from time to time in Japan. They are indeed aptly named: they sparkle and glitter like gems in the sun. One imagines that this makes them highly visible to predators, though.
The spiders that show up in Animal Crossing (not the tarantulas) are also very similar to the kind of large, black and yellow spiders you’ll find throughout Japan, especially toward the end of summer or early autumn.
It’s interesting to note just how large some of the bugs you’ll find in Japan can be, too. This moth was large enough that we couldn’t help but wonder how it could fly. That being said, though, it did seem to be having some difficulty with that at the time.
Dragonflies are a symbol of mid to late summer in Japan, presumably because they are just EVERYWHERE. They also seem uniquely unafraid of humans, such as photographers, making them a great subject for getting up close to take a picture.
Speaking of big cool bugs that don’t really pose much of a threat to humans, I’ve always been fond of mantises. While they can be found overseas — I remember seeing them from time to time when growing up in the US — they seem to be much more common in Japan. One thing that’s especially endearing about them, to me, is that they don’t have a larval form. As a result, a young mantis just looks like a super tiny version of an adult mantis. For an idea of scale, that first photo is of a mantis nymph on the end of a ball-point pen.
And of course, there are other small creatures that are still fairly photogenic. Whenever it rains, it feels like suddenly a hundred snails appear near my home. I suppose that makes sense — they prefer wet environments, after all.
I also have an inexplicable fondness for small crabs. The river near my apartment seems to be home to a fair number of these little crabs — for an idea of the size, the crab is standing on a manhole cover, and its body is roughly the size of a circle made by touching the tip of your finger to the tip of your thumb. I’m not sure why it is that I find tiny crabs so adorable. Perhaps it’s the way they walk so slowly and smoothly compared to, say, cockroaches (which are decidedly not cute bugs). In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of small animals from outside, as a way to help pass the time while you’re quarantined. Please stay safe, everybody!

The Start of a New Year in Kanazawa

Certainly, Kanazawa is a beautiful city all year round, but there’s something about winter that feels truly iconic. Maybe it’s just the decorations that go up in December or so. (Please ignore the fact that it’s currently February — it’s been busy!)
At the train station, they put up a Christmas tree in the lobby with Kanazawa-themed decorations, depicting Tsuzumimon Gate (located out front of the station), Kotoji Toro (the iconic two-legged stone lantern from Kenrokuen Garden), yukizuri rope supports used to help trees handle the heavy snowfalls the region generally gets in winter, and — because it is a train station, after all — a Shinkansen train.
This display in Korinbo combines the Christmas tree motif with a slightly abstract depiction of a yukizuri support, for a uniquely Kanazawa approach. More distinctly Japanese, though, are the decorations you’ll see at entrances of both homes and businesses to greet the new year. Here’s a set from a shopping mall:
These decorations are called kadomatsu, and in fact, they’re a ubiquitous enough symbol of the new year in Japan that they’re among the original set of emoji (🎍). These sorts of decorations can be found pretty much everywhere at the end of December and the beginning of January.
A closer look at one placed out in front of a hotel. Delightfully, these decorations can be found even in what might seem like fairly unorthodox locations:
In this case, construction workers decided to spruce up the entrance to their construction site. Naturally, for the new year, the popular custom is to visit a temple or shrine, so I made my way to Oyama Shrine, which was beautifully lit up for the evening.
I’ve always been a fan of its iconic gate. Its blend of architectural styles — you don’t often see stained glass at Japanese religious buildings! — almost feels nowadays like a symbol of the internationalization of Kanazawa, or perhaps even Japan as a whole. If nothing else, it sure is pretty. We walked around a bit more in the area, and came across this unique-looking structure:
It took us a moment to figure out that this was a shrine building with an exterior built on to help it weather the winter. As you approach the front of the building, though, it becomes obvious. Even so, it was kind of an odd experience to look inside a building only to see what is, effectively, the outside of a building. We also saw this phone booth. Nothing especially wintery about it, or anything. It was just kind of fun seeing traditional local architectural styles applied to a phone booth.
If you visit Japan, it’s a common piece of advice to try to avoid the new year, because the whole country kind of closes for the first three or four days of January, but if you’re interested in a perhaps quieter, more contemplative experience (especially if you’re visiting someone), the new year in Japan can be beautiful in its own way.

Trip to Kyushu!

For the recent long weekend, my wife and I visited Kyushu, because we’d never really spent much time there before. In this case, we mostly stuck to the northern part, around Fukuoka. One thing I’d heard about Fukuoka City is that yatai food stalls were a major part of the local culture. I’d always imagined that, say, there might be three or four out by major train stations, or something like that.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Along this river, at least on weekend evenings, there were dozens of these yatai. Probably as many as thirty or forty, with plenty of others scattered throughout the city: there were many more near the major train stations, and even just in various open spaces. We even saw one that was simply out on the sidewalk in front of a convenience store. This river is also kind of a famous part of Fukuoka City, apparently, and has the sort of large neon signs that Japanese cities’ nightlife districts tend to be known for.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the sorts of older, “animated” neon signs you’ll see in Japan that generally date back several decades. The pre-LED kind.
Our trip also took us to Dazaifu, home of Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a major shrine.
The train station architecture alone provided a solid sense of what to expect in terms of why this town is on the proverbial map.
Apparently, it’s common to come to the shrine to pray for success on, say, tests and other examinations, so there’s a ramen shop next to the station selling gokaku ramen, served in a pentagonal bowl. In Japan, wordplay is often a major part of things that are considered lucky or auspicious, and in this case, it’s based on the similarity between the words gokaku (pentagon) and gōkaku (successfully passing a test). The walk to the shrine was nice, with a number of charming old storefronts, and a definite theme of ume plums in their names and products. This makes sense: the shrine is a Tenman-gu shrine, dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin, and ume plums are generally associated with him. (Come to think of it, Fukuoka’s nightlife district is also named Tenjin. I wonder if there’s any connection.)
A sweets shop named “Baien,” or “Plum Orchard”
Along the way, though, we also encountered one shop that didn’t quite feel like it fully belonged there, though it was very impressive nevertheless.
I have no idea why there was such a fancy Starbucks here, but… there was! The wood design continued inside, all the way through to the back of the shop. (Pardon the animated image; it was very difficult to capture the 3D feel of the design otherwise.) Not much later, we made our way to the shrine! It was nice.
We also made our way out to Karatsu, Saga for another event while we were in Kyushu: the Karatsu Kunchi festival. Float-based festivals are always fun, and this one was very impressive.
Each part of town has its own elaborate float, made mainly of lacquered wood, and people pull the floats around town with drummers and flute players aboard, sometimes even breaking into a sprint. At some points along the route, the groups come up very close to the edge of the street, where people were gathered to watch, and turn at the last moment.
A few of them, like this goldfish one, even have articulated parts! In this case, the fins move back and forth, and the whole top part is up on a pivot to tilt it forward and back. The floats tended to draw from mythology and history, with a few giant replicas of famous samurai warriors’ masks and helmets, as well as other designs like this treasure ship…
…and this shachihoko, a sort of mythical fish that you’ll often see on Japanese castle rooftops, as a way to ward off disaster.
On the way home, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while we were at Fukuoka Station before getting on the Shinkansen to go home. We got castella cake from Fukusaya, a famous old shop that dates back hundreds of years. They’re based in Nagasaki, but they have a shop in Fukuoka, as well. Kyushu has a long history of sweets in particular, because for a long time, all of the sugar Japan imported came in through Nagasaki’s Dejima port, and as a result it’s common to add sugar to all sorts of cooking in Kyushu, even today. On the other hand, if I am going to be honest with myself, I took this photo mostly because Fukusaya’s logo made me think of Batman.
And with that, it was time to head home. Just one thing left to do before leaving:
Time to pick up some Kyushu souvenirs. Kyushuvenirs.

Wordplay Isn’t Limited to Native Speakers

One experience that has stuck with me was an evening when my wife and I were getting dinner with a couple of coworkers of hers who are from Israel. The conversation turned to halva, a dessert popular in many countries, including Israel, and my wife — a fond lover of puns — mentioned that they should have a brand of halva called “Halva Nagila,” after the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila.” They both briefly stopped and kind of stared into the middle distance before going “…OH, okay, now I get it.” Apparently, in Hebrew, the two words do not sound similar in the same way that they do in English.

At the same time, though, I’ve had plenty of experiences with this phenomenon in Japan, with English. Even back in 2005, during a study abroad program…

…the school festival that fall had the theme of “All You Need is Laugh,” which sounds obviously strange in English simply because the parts of speech don’t really work, but it’s less obviously so in Japanese, partially because the subtle distinction of why “laugh” sounds weird there isn’t intuitive (“laugh” can be a noun, but “laughter” would be more natural here), and also because the vowel sounds of “love” and “laugh” both reduce to the same equivalent sound in Japanese.

Here’s a product with a name I’m really fond of!

The Japanese word for mackerel is saba, and in Japanese, “v” sounds are generally reduced to “b” sounds because “v” isn’t a sound native to the language. The result: canned mackerel with the name “ça va?” (“how’s it going?” in Spanish).

Here’s a unique foodstuff with a unique name:

Unsurprisingly, “New Yolk” is meant as a play on “New York,” and I can’t really fault them for going with a name like that. Incidentally, I can’t let this go by without noting that the sign in the bottom right advertises “the world’s hardest-to-eat hot dog,” and the sign in the top right suggests that they may have a strong claim to the title.

This one takes advantage of different naming conventions in Japan:

In Japan, it’s very common for a business to put what kind of business it is at the beginning of the name, rather than optionally at the end, like in English (i.e. something like “Ramen Ichiro” is far more common in Japan, instead of something like “Ichiro’s Ramen” that would be more natural in English). In this case, it’s a bar with what appears to be a finance motif — a web search suggests that they have big-screen TVs inside over the bar showing some sort of data visualizations — and even though the logo is clearly a line chart, I couldn’t help but absolutely love the way the name works.

Sometimes, though, the wordplay can work just as well in both languages!

This restaurant is named for the fact that it’s run by the Iwai family, and because the restaurant specializes in hamburgers, steak, and other “American” foods, they wanted an “American-sounding” name, so they went with “E.Y.’s,” not because the letters stand for anything in particular, but because it sounds like “Iwai.”

Finally, we have one more that I’m honestly not sure about!

I love this name, but I don’t actually know if it’s meant to be a play on The Da Vinci Code or not! Is it a clever pun in English, or is it a play on the tendency of many Japanese speakers to de-voice voiced consonants at the end of some loanwords (i.e. “bed” becomes “bet,” or “bag” becomes “bak”)? Or maybe the owner just likes Leonardo da Vinci? It remains a mystery. The coats in the window looked quite nice, though.