Nonomiya Shrine: Oldest Torii Gate

A tour guide pointed out this torii gate at Nonomiya Shrine (野宮神社) in Kyoto. Apparently, it is the only shrine in Japan with a torii gate that maintains its rough outer texture and its natural coloring (usually torii gates are red) and also the oldest Torii gate in Japan. I find it hard to believe that this really is the oldest torii gate in Japan, but it is certainly unique with its unfinished style.

Torii Gate of Nonomiya Shrine in Kyoto

This shrine is right next to the bamboo forest on the tourist route in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto so I have been there many times, but I never really noticed the uniqueness of the Torii.

Nonomiya Shrine in Kyoto

A nice torii indeed… I’ve got nothing more to say about Nonomiya Shrine. Go out there and give it a look!


For more Torii Gate fun check out this older post about Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.

Nonomiya Shrine Official Site

Okonomimura for Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

I went to Okonomimura in Hiroshima on recommendation by some twitter peeps last week.


The environment was really cool, not what I expected at all. I was told that Okonomimura was one building that had lots of different okonomiyaki shops inside all serving their signature okonomiyaki dishes. I imagined something like Gyoza Stadium or the now closed Osaka Gokuraku Shotengai 極楽商店街. Okonomimura was totally different though!


Instead of being a bunch of people all working for the same company as is the case with Gyoza Stadium, it is actually just a bunch of Okonomiyaki chefs that all have their shops in the same building and actually appear to be in competition with each other. It doesn’t have the “fake” amusement park feel that those other locations do. Some okonomiyaki shops were completely void of customers, and some were so packed we couldn’t get a seat.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki with Kaki on top... Delicious.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki with Kaki on top... Delicious.

The environment is great. There are 3 floors with nothing but Okonomiyaki.

Quality Okonomiyaki!

I decided to take a video at this particular shop, because as you can see, a picture just wouldn’t capture the essence of this okonomiyaki creating magic! So rhythmical, so ‘with-noodles-inside’, so scrumptious!

Would you believe this is the first YouTube video I have ever uploaded? It is. It was easy. I might do this again…

If you go to Hiroshima be sure to check out Okonomimura. It is listed in most all of the foreign travel guides it seems, and there were tons of foreigners around when we were there. The also provide English language menus… Though I ended up explaining “Korean Pickles” (Kimchi) to a Spanish family sitting in the same shop as us… Sometimes English translations just don’t cut it!

Good stuff.

– Harvey



More information on Okonomimura:

Hiroshima Dialect Japan Election Puns

A revolutionary election is coming up in Japan August 30th and all kinds of advertisements are posted around the town. This advertisement I found in Hiroshima is a bit tricky to understand! See if you can get the joke.


I don’t really know Hiroshima-ben at all, but here is what my friends and I figured it probably means.

The text is 「選挙にキンサイ!」

選挙 (senkyo) is “election.”

に is the particle which shows direction, meaning “to” in this case.

キンサイ is confusing.

キン might be 金 which means “gold” and can refer to this gold yellow color.

サイ might be さい、for “rhino.”

キンサイ is probably an alteration of 来なさい(kinasai) which means “please come (more of a command form).” We think this part is specifically Hiroshima dialect.

So it means “come to the elections!” and is a pun referring to a golden rhino… Why a golden rhino? Why not?

What do you think? Is this Japanese dialect pun detection quest a success?

Apologies for the terrible resolution – this was a quick cell phone photo while running out of Hiroshima University to catch a bus after a meeting!

– Harvey

What Giongo and Gitaigo Are All About

Most students of Japanese are introduced to giongo (擬音語) and gitaigo (擬態語) very early in their studies and don’t even realize it. Students of Japanese who are reading this may already be familiar with the term, “wan-wan” (ワンワン) which is the Japanese sound (giongo) for a dog barking, or “peko peko” (ぺこぺこ) which is a gitaigo that can describe an empty stomach. These words permeate the Japanese language and are a lot of fun to study. Any extended conversation in Japanese with a native Japanese speaker will undoubtedly involve one of these phrases (I bet ぺらぺら comes up first…) Learning to use these phrases will really bring your Japanese to life.

Giongo and gitaigo are not only interesting for learners of Japanese as a second language, in fact large Japanese-Japanese dictionaries dedicated solely to giongo and gitaigo can be found in Japanese bookstores like Kinokuniya. People who grow up speaking Japanese can usually “feel” the meaning of a giongo or gitaigo phrase, but for those of us who learn Japanese as a second language it is usually necessary to study them a bit in order to get a feel for them. Once you have heard enough of these phrases you’ll really start to be able to get the gist of them from context without losing track of the conversation. With enough practice you’ll be able to work your favorite phrases into your own Japanese speech and writing!

The linguistic term for these gitaigo phrases are mimetic expressions, and giongo are more commonly called onomatopoeia. We have mimetic expressions in English too, but Japanese uses them far more frequently. Japanese will almost always use some giongo or gitaigo when explaining an exciting or emotional experience. If you’ve ever heard a Japanese person excitedly explain something that they have experienced personally you’ll know what I’m talking about.

While on safari in Tanzania my wife and I were lucky enough to see elephants come storming out of the woods right beside our car. My wife, a native Japanese speaker, repeatedly used mimetic words (gitaigo) to describe the scene as she experienced it to her friends after getting back into the city.

zou ga bakibai, bakibaki to ki wo nagi taoshinagara, mori kara detekita!

An elephant crashing through the forest
An elephant crashing through the forest

The term “baki baki” is used to describe the sound of big thick sticks breaking. A native speaker will put extra emphasis on the “baki baki” in this example, and perhaps even wave their arms around to really stress the fact that the elephant was crashing through the forest. On the other hand, small skinny sticks break like “paki paki.” You can see how rich giongo and gitaigo phrases are in the Japanese language from this simple example. You can also see how it would be difficult to get the “feel” for the difference between “baki baki” and “paki paki” without studying a bit.

She also used giongo to describe the sound of the elephants trumpet as ぱおーん! This doesn’t appear in my dictionary, but it is a giongo that any Japanese will be familiar with.

I think Japanese textbooks should have a giongo, or at least a gitaigo section that is dedicated to explaining these words. Using these phrases skillfully can really make your Japanese come to life and sound more natural. Google around for gitaigo and give some a try! If you’ve got an iPhone or iPod Touch you can also check out our new Japanese 101: Giongo and Gitaigo App as well for lots more examples.

Learn those giongo and gitaigo!


Find your Japanese in the Wild

It’s important to find your Japanese in the wild.

Nothing is worse than cookie-cutter sentences straight from the textbook. Using this prepackaged Japanese alone will make you sound like a robot.

So, it’s important to really get out there and find your Japanese at the source. You know, from Japanese magazines, Japanese TV shows, and random Japanese people.

If you want to be really hardcore though, you have to be able to find your Japanese DEEP in the wild. I’m talking about way out in the bush.

Can you spot the Kana in this photo?

Can you spot the Kana in this photo?

See, did you spot it? Japanese in the wild.

It’s there, really. No, not the elephants – though they are pretty cool too.

First person to spot the kana in this picture and comment on the location gets a free copy of the new Japanese 101: Giongo and Gitaigo app!

If you don’t have an iPhone or iPod Touch… well, sorry, but at least you’ll get kudos for being the first to find it and post! Please indicate whether or not you want the code in the comment along with your answer. If someone finds the kana and doesn’t need the code, I’ll give the code to the next person to comment that indicates that they have an iPhone or iPod Touch.

This is another test of your kana recognition skills! My wife spotted this way before I did, so I still need some kana speed recognition before I can be considered as sharp as a native!

Fun stuff. Picture taken in the Serengeti by the way. I go back to the United States tomorrow, and then off to Japan the next day!


Japanese 101: Giongo and Gitaigo App Released

Unless you’ve been living under a rock and not checking your twitter for the last 30 minutes, you probably heard that the Japanese 101: Giongo and Gitaigo iPhone app has finally hit the App Store!

You can read more about app here, and of course, check it out in the iTunes store if you’ve got a few bucks burning a hole in your wallet.

Japanese 101: Giongo and Gitaigo Screen Shot

Giongo and gitaigo are a great way to bring your Japanese to life and I really think that these fun phrases should be given more attention in textbooks. There are a ton of these phrases so we plan to update this application quite a few times. Stick a few of these phrases in your back pocket and work them into your conversations from time to time! I’m sure your Japanese friends will be impressed.

Hope you enjoy it!



Do you know your kana?

How well do you know your Kana?

I’d like to take this opportunity to attempt a “kick in the pants motivational post.” I don’t do these often, but reading some Japanese-learning related forums recommending a textbook that spent most of the time using romaji just got me worked up. Plus, I wanted to try out this neato “auto thumbnail” image thing. Yes, seems to be working nicely.

If you’re studying Japanese and still rely on romaji instead of reading and writing straight kana (hiragana and katakana), then you need to stop whatever it is you’re studying, and go learn your hiragana and katakana again.

Seriously, your hiragana and katakana writing and recognition skills should be second nature by now. I say by now without knowing how long you have studied Japanese, but seriously, in most cases “by now” will apply. It only really takes about one month, two tops, to get hiragana and katakana drilled into your mind and body. Sure the characters look funny to a mind used to the roman alphabet, but if you’re slacking on the kana and want to learn Japanese, what are you going to do about kanji??

I’m sure many JapanNewbie readers will agree that I’m not being unrealistic here.

When drilling the kana I recommend using a variety of approaches to really absorb the essence of the characters into your being.

You should practice:

  • Seeing the romaji, and writing the kana.
  • Hearing the Japanese, and identifying the kana.
  • Hearing the Japanese, and writing the kana.
  • Seeing the kana, and pronouncing it out loud.
  • Hearing some random Japanese word (even words you don’t know), and writing it down in kana (use a dictionary to input the Japanese you wrote to verify that you heard correctly).
  • See the English for a word you know in Japanese, and write it down in kana.
  • Read a ton of katakana words and translate them into English.
  • Try to write English words in katakana. Check a dictionary from time to time to see if you’re getting the idea. You’ll probably find most of them in the Japanese dictionary. Table, computer, truck, rocket, all of these are written in katakana. Remember, the goal is to practice using the kana.

If you mix all of these activities into your study routine, eventually you’ll be able to read and write kana like you ride a bicycle (no offense to those who can’t ride a bicycle).

Back in high school in the mid-90’s our teacher would use a variety of games. In one game two teams of four students would go up to the blackboard with a piece of chalk. Only one student from each team could write at a time and the other team members couldn’t help out. The teacher would say a kana, and the first team to write it correctly would win the point. Then the next person on the team would step up to the plate and see how they could do. This game was great! You hear it, you write it. The pressure of letting your team down was enough to motivate even the most slacking slackers. Good times.

We also played a game where the hiragana flash cards would be all over the floor. The teacher would call one out, and we would break our fingers trying to be the first to grab the card. At the end of the game whoever had the most cards won. Great speed recognition skill building there.

Finally, we played a game where the class would be sitting in their seats, but one student would stand up behind another student. The teacher would hold up the Japanese side of a kana flash card. The seated student and the person behind them would try to be the first to shout out the character. The winner would move on to the next seat in the row, and the loser would sit down, or stay seated, whatever the case may be. The first student to rotate all the way around the class and get back to their own seat would win. I think this was called “Around the World.” Anyway, “see it, say it” was the name of the game here. Good times.

If anyone has experience any other cool kana learning games let us know in the comments!

Once you have your hiragana and katakana mastered Japanese becomes much more clear. Once you have your kana you’ll know how to pronounce every single sound there is in the Japanese language.

This is because of the morae concept that was recently mentioned on caught red handed.

“Why is this important? It might just be that the key to unlocking Japanese pronunciation is a very clear understanding of how these morae fit together as the fundamental building block of the spoken language”


Not only that, but you’ll instinctively understand how things are supposed to sound. You’ll be able to hear and see the difference in こんにちは (konnichiwa) and こにちは (konichiwa = nonsense). It’s great. Knowing the kana is power!

Oh, and lastly, do your self a favor and learn the proper stroke order for your hiragana and katakana, and use the proper stroke order when you practice them. Trust me. When I was in high school I didn’t, and now my handwriting in Japanese looks about as bad as my English handwriting. Sloppy!

Go forth and Drill your Kana

I asked some tweeps for recommendations on websites to study hiragana and katakana. Most of the suggestions I received were from @c_rh who has a serious problem with Katakana… So is looking for all the help he can get. has a “see the romaji, pick the kana” (and vice-versa) speed game on their site. It tracks user’s high scores so the competitiveness makes it fun.

NihongoUp is a downloadable Japanese educational game and reviewing tool that will drill your kana as well as other things. is a popular online quiz that will test your kana and kanji skills.

Japanesepod101 has some good stuff, but I have never seen or tried them.

Ganbare with the Kana out there!

[UPDATE 09/19/2009]

For help getting the Kana into your head, check out our iPhone Japanese 101: Hiragana application. When you finish with that, the Katakana app will get the Katakana stuck in your head as well. You don’t need an internet connection to use either app, so they’re ideal for drilling while on the go! Enjoy!

Note, there is also a free version of the Hiragana app if you want to try before you buy.

Screen Shot from the Hiragana Application:
Hiragana App Cover Shot

– Harvey