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Into the snowy season

I got back from Singapore on the morning of January 7th to find snow on the ground in Hikone, which came as something of a shock considering the tropical heat I'd just left! There was more snow that afternoon too.

Monday 8th January was a public holiday: Coming of Age Day, when everyone who has had their 20th birthday in the last twelve months is supposed to attend a ceremony to officially mark their passage into adulthood. The local fire brigade held a New Year parade on a sports pitch next to the castle moat, so (since I had nothing better to do) I went down there to have a look.

Parade Water jets
Fire brigade parade.

School started again on the 9th, with a freezing, but mercifully short, opening ceremony in the gym.

Snow was forecast every day for a week starting from the 12th, but in fact it only materialised in Hikone on a couple of days, lying about 6-8" deep on one occasion. It was a cold week though - cold enough for ice to form on the castle moat. The lowest it got was -5°C; usually the winter temperature here bottoms out around zero.

Frozen moat
Frozen castle moat.

Conservation activities

On January 13th I spent the day with the Yokaichi Yuurinkai (my conservation volunteer group) clearing fallen and cut branches from an area of the forest. The following Saturday I braved the unexpected snow and ventured through to Yokaichi again, this time to attend a talk by a Dr. Rackham, an expert from Cambridge University on British woodlands. The talk itself was preceded by a video of a programme about British hedgerows which was shown on Japanese TV a few weeks ago, and a presentation by some local high school students of a project they had been doing. Dr. Rackham's talk was interesting, but he clearly had no idea how to address an audience of people who don't understand much English. Initially he even seemed to expect that it wouldn't be necessary for the interpreter to translate everything he said, so she had to stop him a couple of times so that she could get a word in to let the audience know what was going on. He used a lot of unnecessarily difficult words too, such as "something something primeval" (I forget what the somethings were) when "very old" or "ancient" would have been perfectly adequate, so the poor interpreter had quite a hard time of it!

Genko update

At my visit school I have now started teaching classes with the other two English teachers, Tsutsumi-sensei and Tsuchikawa-sensei. (Genko only has four English teachers, which isn't many for a school of 900 students; my base school has only about 800 students but there are seven English teachers.) The aim is for me to teach every class in the school!

Towards the end of January, during my first lesson with the second year Architecture class, I fell victim to the lethally slippery floors that they have in Japanese schools. Why the floors are so slippery, I have no idea; it's a wonder there aren't more accidents. Nishiko is the same, and in the corridors as well as the classrooms. I'm sure the floors in British schools must be treated with non-slip polish, because I don't remember having to skid from room to room when I was at school. Anyway, in the middle of the lesson, I stepped off the teacher's platform, my feet shot out from under me, and I came whacking down on my tailbone. The initial reaction of amusement from the students was soon replaced by one of concern when I didn't immediately get up again, but after a few seconds I managed to get back onto my feet and carry on with the lesson. Later on it got quite painful, and I considered going to hospital to make sure that there was no serious damage, but I couldn't face the idea of venturing out in the rain so I procrastinated until the next day, by which time it was a bit better, though full recovery took a lot longer. During my next visit to Genko, a week later, I met two girls on their way to the health room, with one of them propping the other one up - it seemed that she'd had exactly the same accident as I had. In Japan they have these great little heat pads that you can use as pocket handwarmers, and they also have adhesive versions, so I stuck one of those on my back. I'm sure the heat helped the injury, but unfortunately I hadn't examined the packaging closely enough to decipher the bit that said you shouldn't stick them directly to the skin, so I ended up with a low temperature burn to boot!


I've just about got the hang of putting on my kimono now, though I can only tie one kind of obi knot: the taiko musubi (drum knot), which is the relatively simple one usually worn by older or married women. It's still pretty complicated to tie though - in fact I'm putting a kimono page together to illustrate how complex the process is. My obi is a Nagoya obi, and with a Nagoya obi the taiko is the only kind of knot you can use. More versatile is the fukuro obi, which is longer and a little narrower.

Until late January I was using kimono undergarments and accessories borrowed from Pamela, but on January 27th I attended a kimono fair in Osaka with Mori-sensei (for which the kimono school had laid on a bus from Nagahama and Hikone), and bought all the necessary equipment for myself: an under-robe, a collar, a hip-pad, a pair of tabi (split-toed socks), and assorted clips, belts and ropes. Strictly, you're also supposed to use a flattening bra (the ideal figure for kimono has no curves), but I was reluctant, having always been the flattest-chested person in the changing rooms when I was at school, to fork out another ¥3800 for that! In total, my purchases came to almost ¥30,000 (that's £160-odd at current exchange rates), so my kimono has turned out to be quite an expensive gift! Mind you, the cheapest kimono fabric I saw at the fair was ¥38,000 per roll (enough for one kimono, though lining fabric was sold separately, so I don't think this price included getting the garment made up) and the cheapest obi were Nagoya obi at ¥20,000 - and these were special member-only wholesale prices. The normal retail price of the Nagoya obi, for example, was ¥68,000! I've also replaced the carrier bag that I'd been using to transport my kimono gear, with a proper kimono bag, which I bought through Mori-sensei's usual supplier rather than at the fair.

Mori-sensei Kimono artist Kimono artist
At the kimono fair: Mori-sensei looking at obiage (the silk sashes) and obijime (the ropes); an artist painting designs on kimono; an obi weaver at work (unfortunately you can't see the zig-zag shapes that her fingernails were filed into).

Denshijisho research

My Canon Wordtank IDX-6500 portable electronic dictionary (denshijisho), bought about 16 months ago, seems to be on its last legs, so I've been researching the market for a replacement and upgrade. (I'd often wished that I'd splashed out and bought the higher-spec model in the first place.) I knew that the Wordtank series had the reputation of being the best electronic dictionary for non-native Japanese speakers, but I wanted to be sure that nothing better had become available in the last few months.

The Wordtank upgrades I was looking at were the IDX-9600, the IDX-9700 (identical to the 9600 except that it also contains a katakana dictionary) and the newer IDF-3000. The two IDX models are operated in almost exactly the same way as my existing denshijisho (which incidentally is still advertised in Canon's brochures, despite being something of an antique these days), but the IDF has a higher spec and is operated differently. These all cost between ¥15,000 and ¥20,000, though their official prices are higher.

I've also looked at several other models, including the Sony DD-IC200, the Sharp PW6000, the Casio XD-S700 and the Seiko SR750, all in the same price range. I discounted the Sony pretty quickly because its kanji dictionary doesn't seem to have any way of looking up kanji compounds. The others all allow me to do what I want to do, but only in a convoluted way. For example, if I'm looking for a Japanese word and the E-J dictionary offers several alternatives, the readings of which I don't know, I have to make a note of the kanji for each possibility, and look it up in the kanji dictionary using the stroke count method. Having found the initial kanji I have to page through all the possible compounds using that character until I find the compound I'm looking for, then I can look up the furigana (reading). Now that I have the furigana, I can go to the J-E dictionary, enter the furigana and see whether the translation that it comes up with fits the sense of the word I was looking for in the first place. This isn't such a problem for Japanese people, since in most cases they already know the furigana so they can skip the kanji search stage, but for non-native speakers it's something of a headache. With the IDX series, in comparison, you can highlight one of the translations in the E-J dictionary and jump directly to the kanji compound entry, which in this series is combined with the J-E dictionary, so you get not only instant furigana but also an instant English translation! (The IDX series also offers an English-language display option, though my ability to read Japanese is now at the stage where this is a luxury rather than a necessity.) In the other dictionaries, if the kanji compounds are defined at all in the kanji dictionary (and they aren't in the PW6000) then the definitions are only in Japanese. Some of them have jump functions but they're very limited in how they can be used - in most cases you don't seem to be able to highlight Japanese words at all, only English ones.

I eventually (we're into February now but I'm keeping this topic all in one place) decided against the IDF-3000; it has an excellent specification, probably far more than I will ever need, but isn't quite as simple for non-native Japanese speakers to use as the IDX series is. Besides that, there doesn't seem to be any way to find a kanji compound by looking up any character other than the first, whereas with the IDX series it's possible in some cases to start with the second (or third) character, albeit by a rather roundabout route.

So that brought my choice down to the IDX-9600/9700... but then I noticed that the much smaller, lighter and cheaper IDC-310 (also a Canon Wordtank) had almost exactly the same spec as the 9600, with the exception of a world clock replacing the 9600's travel English function (basically an English phrasebook for Japanese speakers, as far as I could see, so that wasn't something I anticipated making much use of anyway). In fact its kanji dictionary was billed as having roughly twice as many entries as the 9600's!

Of course, the reduced size of the IDC-310 - it's about a third of the weight of its bigger sibling - means a more fiddly keyboard and a smaller screen. For example, in the kanji idiom dictionary there's only room for four kanji compounds per screen rather than six, so paging through to find the kanji compound you want can take a long time. The compounds are listed in kana order, as with the 9600, but unlike the 9600, the listings also include compounds where the kanji you are searching by is not the first character. For example, if you looked up the kanji for study (gaku) and then listed the idioms for that kanji, "igaku" (medicine) would be listed on the 310 but not on the 9600. While this increases the length of the list you have to page through, it also allows you the option of searching by the second/third character instead of the first - useful if you can't locate the first character, or if you know that it's going to have hundreds of compounds listed. (Presumably this is why it's billed as having about twice as many entries in the kanji dictionary as the IDXs. There are probably actually the same number but you can look them up from any of their constituent kanji.) Also, the 310 (unlike my old model, and presumably also the 9600 though I didn't check) tells you how many pages of compounds there are in total, and you have the option of paging backwards and starting with the multi-character compounds if you so choose. (The entries are listed in kana order, as I said before, but all the single-character words come first, followed by the two-character ones, and so on.)

The "jump" function is more limited on the 310 than on the 9600, only allowing you to jump to a single kanji rather than a kanji idiom, but it's still a lot simpler than with the other brands. I've also found that for some reason you can't use the jump function to jump from a screen that you've reached via the kanji dictionary, but it does work if you go to the same screen via the J-E dictionary.

In the end I decided that, for me, the smallness, lightness and cheapness of the IDC-310 (it cost a little under ¥10,000, compared to ¥15,800 for the IDX-9600), combined with the ability to look up kanji compounds by the second or third characters, outweighed the smaller screen and the reduced flexibility of the jump function, and so I opted for that one. Incidentally, it seems that the instructions for this model are available only in Japanese, although it does offer the English menus as on the IDX series.

[Update: my IDC-310 went haywire at the beginning of June, four months after I'd bought it. I took it back to the shop and it turned out that it just needed resetting... but then about three days later it completely packed up. So I took it back to the shop again, where this time they failed to fix it, and offered me either a refund or a replacement. I knew that there wasn't another denshijisho on the market that met my needs (unless you count the more expensive and bulky IDX-9600/9700), so I opted for the replacement. The only available replacement they had in at the time was the display model, so rather than wait a week for them to get a new one in I took that, making sure that I got a renewed year's guarantee as part of the deal. Three years later it's still working - most of the time - but it does sometimes refuse to operate in cold weather. And I've just got myself an IDF-3000 to supplement it!]

[Further update: I've found a US merchant that sells Wordtank electronic dictionaries at very reasonable prices (for outside Japan), provides lots of information to help you choose the best one for your needs, and is happy to ship to anywhere in the world. Click here to visit their online shop - and if you've found this site helpful and/or interesting, and you make a purchase, then please mention my name in the comments box at the checkout!]

Miscellaneous happenings

In shop windows all over Hikone you see large seasonal posters - currently they read (in English) "Winter in Hikone" and have a big picture of a snow-covered castle, with smaller pictures inset. I thought that a set of these would make a great souvenir to send/take home, so I asked at the International Lounge whether it would be possible to obtain a set, and was told that the two city tourism offices hand their spare ones out to anyone who asks. The set starts with summer so this year's spring ones aren't available yet, but I've now got the other three plus a few more from previous years. Also at the city hall office you can get blank business cards with pretty pictures of the castle, Genkyu-en, the Hikone Byobu (folding screen, a national treasure) or various other places in town, for the grand sum of ¥2 apiece. I have hundreds of small address stickers that I got printed back in the UK, so all I need to do is stick them on these cards. Much nicer than the flimsy things that I got given a handful of when I first arrived!

One evening in Heiwado, my otherwise fairly uninteresting day was brightened up when I was fed mochi (chewy rice cakes made by pounding glutinous rice into a pulp) by a giant pink rabbit. Why a giant pink rabbit was wandering around the supermarket handing out mochi, I have no idea! It wasn't even as if a particular brand was being promoted, unless we were supposed to recognise the rabbit as the mascot of some brand or other. Anyway, the ridiculousness of it left me grinning stupidly for quite a while afterwards.

Had a fruitful sodai gomi night on the 24th, when I acquired a perfectly respectable (except that a couple of the seams needed stitching up) two-seater sofa from my local rubbish pile. Unfortunately, with the kotatsu in the middle of the room, there's not really enough space for the sofa in the same room as the TV, but I can always shift things around if I need to.

Free sofa!

During the early stages of my denshijisho search, I found myself face to face with a rikishi (sumo wrestler) in my local Wako Denki! I concluded that he was a sumo-san from his physical size (he looked big enough to be a maku-uchi), plus the fact that he had the "ichoumage", or ginkgo leaf topknot, worn only by rikishi, actors in period dramas and people in historical parades - and in the latter two cases the topknots are usually wigs. He was wearing casual clothes (not the usual yukata) and looking at hi-fi equipment with a woman, presumably his girlfriend or wife. When I mentioned the sighting to some local acquaintances the next day, I was told that he was probably Aogiyama, who comes from Hikone, and yes, he is a maku-uchi.

From a nightlife point of view, January's been pretty quiet, with just a night at the izakaya and karaoke with some friends, and a pre-moving party at Pamela and Hiro's in Yokaichi; they've been living in company housing there for about a year, and are moving back to Hikone early next month, so that Hiro can quit his high-stress job. Tatsuro is cuter than ever, and at seven months he's at the stage of dragging himself around the floor (but not quite crawling yet) and getting inquisitive about things.

Another karaoke picture.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 4th October 2004