On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 1, Central Honshu

Given this is primarily a litblog, I like my travel posts to have some literary or, at least, linguistic interest. And so in this first post about our current trip to Japan, literary and linguistic observations and thoughts will be my focus.

Linguistic challenges

Japanese language has a pitch-accent system which can provide particular challenges for English-speaking foreigners who try to use some Japanese words when communicating. For example:

  • Kaki: Oyster or Persimmon, depending on, to me, a very slight difference in intonation
  • Sake: Salmon or, well, Sake, with the same proviso as above
  • Hana: Flower, Nose or a Girl’s name with, I think, no variation in pronunciation. So, when you see a shop, as we did the other day, called Hana No Hana (‘no’ denoting ‘possession’), you wonder whether it means ‘Hana’s Flower’ or’ Hana’s Nose’ or ‘Flower’s Nose’ or, Flower’s Flower’, or … well, you can see where I’m going can’t you? You can have fun playing word games with Japanese people.


Sign in toilet, Japan

Sign in toilet, Japan

English-speaking foreigners, as you probably know, love to “catch” Japanese out in their English usage … and so for fun I’ll share just a couple that we’ve come across to date with you. But, please note that these are shared in a sense of fun not ridicule. After all, most Japanese know more English than I do Japanese, and at least they try.

  • On a special English menu in an izakaya that I shall leave unidentified to protect the innocent:

It is necessary to enjoy oneself over meal after it acknowledges though it is thought that the mistake of the word is somewhat found in the menu.

  • Inside a toilet door. For some reason, hotels and tourist venues often feel the need to tell you what to do with your used toilet paper. This one is particularly (unconsciously, we presume) entertaining:

(It is asked a favour to users by a manager)
Please divert toilet paper to a toilet stool. Let’s use a restroom neatly.


I like to read Japanese writers, and have reviewed a couple on this blog to date, but here I’ll share something different.

A little haiku written by the poet Koyabashi Issa (1763-1827), one of Japan’s four haiku masters. It was inspired by a frog mating battle at Gansho-in Temple in the lovely little town of Obuse, and was written to encourage his sickly son. (Unfortunately, his son died a month later. In fact, Issa was pre-deceased by all his children and his wife).

Makeru na! Issa,
Kore ni ari.

It roughly translates to:

Skinny Frog,
Don’t give up! Issa
Is here.

English traveller-explorer Isabella Lucy Bird‘s* letters, titled Unbeaten tracks in Japan, published in 1880 about her trip to Japan. I downloaded an eBook version and have been dipping into it during our trip. In Letter XVIII she talks about her travels in the alpine region of Central/Western Honshu through which we travelled a day or so ago. Here is an excerpt:

It is an enchanting region of beauty, industry, and comfort, mountain girdled, and watered by the bright Matsuka. Everywhere there are prosperous and beautiful farming villages, with large houses with carved beams and ponderous tiled roofs, each standing in its own grounds, buried among persimmons [kaki, remember!] and pomegranates, with flower-gardens under trellised vines, and privacy secured by high, closely-clipped screens of pomegranate and cryptomeria.

She then names a number of villages, including the gorgeous Takayama which we have now visited on two occasions. She describes the farms as “exquisitely trim and neat”, and nothing has changed today.

I was also struck by a comment on food from the same letter. When she asked her hosts whether they drank milk from their cow, she learnt that they didn’t, that they thought it was “most disgusting” the way foreigners put into their tea something “with such a strong smell and taste”. Tea is of course a significant part of Japanese culture, but from a country which eats the oddest things to our western minds – salmon nose anyone? – this did make me laugh. Each to her own, as they say!

And here ends, my first little travel piece. More to come (probably).

*In the interests of full disclosure, I must add that according to Wikipedia, her first adventure was to Australia but she apparently didn’t like it.

15 thoughts on “On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 1, Central Honshu

  1. Love it, WG! Great blend of diffirent “literary” aspects of Japan. As you know, I’m a diehard lover of all things Japlish and haiku, so feel free to keep those coming in future 🙂

    P.S. If it weren’t for this post, and Dad’s comment on my blog, I’d be worried about your state of aliveness… Do keep in touch!

    • Glad you enjoyed it … we are here. Remember the adage, no news is good news. I have some more Japlish and haiku coming up. At least I think I have at least one more haiku so look out for it.

  2. Regarding your first two quotes: (1) with my dirty mind I first thought about dirty toilet paper and then recalled how often we see scraps or single sheets of toilet paper littering the floors in our toilets in Oz (and possibly other countries), Maybe our public toilet carers should put up similar signs. Wonder if it would make any difference – does it there?
    (2) We could all make a collection of the misspellings in menus here – some hilarious. I read once that the worse the spelling the better the restaurant but I’m not sure that is always the case.
    PS I know your comments are in fun not ridicule.

    • You are right Lithe Lianas about menus … errors certainly aren’t the province of Japanese trying to write in English. Still, with so many English teachers here you’d think they could get one to proofread their menu for a free meal!

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: May 12, 2011 « Hungry Like the Woolf

  4. What an interesting post! How wonderful to visit Japan in such a beautiful season… have the cherry blossoms bloomed already? I’ve enjoyed your tidbits here, and the fun facts. I’m familiar with this kind of ‘fusion language’, having grown up in Hong Kong in the 60’s. Now in Canada, a multicultural society, I can still find such fusion of cultural ‘expressions’. I totally understand your good intentions. BTW, just wondering how is Japan recovering from the triple disasters they suffer a few months ago? I suppose tourism is a good way to get back up. Look forward to more of your travel posts. Have a wonderful journey!

    • Wow Arti, I thought I’d responded to this – but somehow it went into the ether. Down south you wouldn’t know anything had happened, except that it’s regularly on the news – reconstruction and radiation. We don’t know what they’re saying but we can sure tell the subject matter. Also, some places have fairly discreet little boxes for donations to be made.

      We did miss the cherry blossoms, but knew that when we booked. Just as well really because if we’d booked for cherry blossom season that would have been much closer to the disaster and we may have chickened out. This is our third trip to Japan, and we love visiting here. There are still more things to see. (We had in fact planned to spend one of our three weeks in the Sendai area.)

      Another tidbit coming soon I hope. It’s in my head … I just have to find time to write it down.

  5. What fun! It sounds like you are having a lovely time and I enjoyed all that you shared, especially the “Japlish.” Issa is a wonderful poet though I tend to like Basho more, Issa comes in a close second!

  6. I hope you are having a lovely time! I must remember to read Isabella Bird’s letters about Japan. I’ve read her book on traveling through SE Asia, but never managed to read the one of Japan. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Thanks Michelle. I came across her when I researched a previous trip to Japan, but somehow I hadn’t realised until this trip that she’d written up several trips. I like reading “older” travel writing. Have you read Flora Tristan?

  7. Thank you for sharing. I remember that we were laughing (in good spirits of course and not to mock or anything) when we first went to Japan and noticed all the funny uses of the language. Thanks for sharing and I am so glad you got a chance to go to Japan, Sue.

    • Nice to see you again Farnoosh … yes, we were glad we decided to go. It was a third trip to Japan and we have now visited the four major islands, but we still have things we’d love to see and do there, Next overseas trip though will be Europe – it’s been too long.

      And yes, the laughter is not mocking … they do so much better as English than most of us do at Japanese. It’s wonderful how much they try.

  8. A friend from my Viet-namese language study days (an intensive summer program at ANU in 1980) – and later – by chance – (serendipity) – meeting up in Japan – is Amelia FIELDEN. Her ‘tanka’ writing has filled several volumes and her translations of important tanka poets in Japan into English have broadened their readership.

    Aah, yes – “Japlish”! My theory is that it is either (a) a deliberate ploy to test the tolerance levels of foreigners; or (b) if of recent vintage – a direct computer-generated and therefore upside-down translation! I remember in my early years in Japan thinking given all the native English-speakers in the country that surely there was no reason for such mangled written English. But clearly I was thinking too much! It has to be deliberate. So who is having a lend of whom?!!

    • Ah I’ll look her up. I believe there is a tanka group here in Canberra. I hadn’t heard of the form until our second trip to Japan, when we got on the train in the little town of Tsugawa with a woman who noticed us saying goodbye to our son. Turns out she’d been an English teacher, but was now retired and on her way to her annual tanka conference.

      As for Japlish … Yes, we wondered the same particularly given the large numbers of Japanese speakers. We thought maybe in the early days it was unconscious but did wonder if they have learnt that we like it and so provide it accordingly …

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