The Japanese volcano with the most personality


Sakurajima – Japan’s Most Active Volcano

Recently, people have been talking a lot about Sakurajima, an island that is home to Japan’s most active volcano. Experts say it might violently erupt soon. The seismograph is off the charts. Actually, Tofugu made a video about it recently if you want to catch up on the news.

But actually, the volcano at Sakurajima erupts quite frequently. Plumes of smoke are a common sight. I went to Sakurajima before all the hubbub started, so I can show you what the volcano is normally like, when people aren’t freaking out about it.

sakurajima pathway

Sakurajima, which means, “Cherry blossom Island,” is the most famous sightseeing spot in Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, Japan. If you head down that way, be sure to check it out. It’s not often you can go see a smoking volcano!

sakurajima the smoking volcano

It was just an island in the bay until a powerful eruption in 1914. The “-jima” (島) in Sakurajima actually means “island.” But after 1914, which was the largest volcanic eruption in Japan of the 20th century, the lava turned the island into a peninsula! That’s a pretty impressive lava flow. By that time, it was too late to change the name, so it’s still called Sakurajima.

buried shrine at sakurajima

buried torii gate at sakurajima

You can tell how massive the lava flow from that eruption must have been by depth at which this shrine gate is buried. That lava connected the island and the Osumi Peninsula.

massive smoke at sakurajima

posing at sakurajima

As you can see in the picture, the air was so filled with smoke and ash that we barely able to open our eyes at some points. Even though this was a regular day, the volcano was still active enough to blind us a little. You can imagine what it would be like if it really erupts!

sakurajima stone sign

This is a great observation platform. It’s called Yunohira Tembousho. You get a great view. If you look at the bottom left of the photo you can see two people taking a selfie with Sakurajima. This area offers some great photo opportunities. チーズ!

sakurajima beautiful view

The view of the sea and the Osumi Peninsula from the volcano is quite nice too.

sakurajima rock monument

Regrettably, at the end of our trip we weren’t able to make it to this great rock and roll monument, which is nearby Sakurajima. So close, yet so far away. If you go there, please find it for me.

Sakurajima Rating

  • Uniqueness: 8/10 – I don’t think there are many active volcanoes that are also sightseeing spots in Japan, so I rated it an eight.
  • Fun: 7/10 – This was my first volcano, so I was excited to see it, though I thought I would be able to get a little closer to it.
  • Accessibility: 4/10 – It’s a 15-minute ferry ride from Kagoshima Chuo station.
  • Overall: 6/10 – I’m not sure if I’ll go back here again, but if you’re ever in this area, you should definitely check it out at least once.


Rating: 6/10

Sakurajima Access


20 Differences Between Japanese and Western Schools

The majority of your time on JET will be spent at one or more schools. While differences in culture and daily life will likely be quirky and interesting, differences in the education system stand to shock you most of all.

The more you know about these differences before you arrive for your first day of work, the less shocking those differences will be and the more smooth your transition. There will be a steep learning curve no matter what, so why not take some time to educate yourself and decrease the incline?

Please note that things listed here are what you’ll most likely encounter at your placement on JET. There are always exceptions. But these are generally the kinds of situations you’ll encounter.




Photo by 鈴木 宏一

There are no school buses as some may be used to in their home countries. Students tend to live close to the school which they attend, so walking and biking is the way 99% of kids will arrive for a day of study.

High school is another story. Because students test into upper secondary education, they may or may not live in the same town as their high school. Thus many students may come by bus or train. Driving to school is not an option as the legal driving age in Japan is 18 and even after obtaining a driver’s license, students aren’t supposed to drive to school.


If you’re in the same town as one of the schools you’re teaching at, you’ll likely be walking or biking to work alongside your students. If you take public transit to a high school outside your town, you may be sitting on the bus or train near your students.

Entrance Exams and Cram School

japanese high schools students pass college entrance exams

Photo by Chris73

To get a good job in Japan, you need to go to a good university. To get into a good university, you need to pass that university’s entrance exams. The universities you can apply for depend on the high school you attended. To get into a good high school, you need pass the high school entrance exams. And prep for those usually start in junior high, but can start much earlier.

The most common form of prep comes in the for of cram schools or 塾 (juku). These are after school schools where kids pay money for extra education in a particular subject or for help in passing important exams. They especially come into play when students are trying to pass entrance exams.

Cram schools have a lot of critics and proponents. But the fact is they are major part of the Japanese educational landscape and how it functions.


This won’t affect you directly, but it will affect what you teach. The intense focus on testing touches all parts of education culture in Japan. Though you likely won’t be helping any of your students with entrance exams directly, you will be surrounded with the test-centric mindset. This can impact how students respond to your lessons, what your JTEs want you to teach, and more.

Behavior and Discipline


Photo by Mike

Most peoples’ image of the Japanese classroom is one of quiet studiousness and respect for authority. Those who research online may find horror stories of chaotic classrooms with Mad Max-esque social structures. The truth is somewhere in between. As I mentioned before, my school leaned toward the difficult side. But even I had classes full of well-behaved kids. Most schools will have a mixture of both. Kids are kids all over the world, which means you can expect a range of personalities with a touch of childish behavior in each.

How misbehaving students are dealt with in Japan is often the subject of debate. While on JET, I heard this common story: Because the Japanese constitution states that “no child shall be denied an education” (Article 26), teachers are not allowed to send children out of the classroom. I’ve never been able to find evidence proving this idea. But I certainly never saw teachers send students out (maybe because disruptive kids would eventually leave on their own to go smoke).

Either way, discipline is up to the Japanese teacher. Sometimes they’ll control the class and sometimes they won’t (or can’t). There’s also a different standard as to what is considered “bad behavior” so a student’s sleeping may get on your nerves, while your JTE isn’t bothered by it at all.


This is by far the greatest source of tension for visiting ALTs. Seeing behavior that wouldn’t fly in your home country go unpunished (or unaddressed) can be infuriating, especially if that bad behavior is directed at you. Try talking with JTEs or your supervisor and frankly tell them your feelings about the situation. Tell them why the situation frustrates you and ask them to help you understand the Japanese mindset behind discipline in your school.

Truthfully, there’s no hard and fast rules to coping with this difficult subject. What you’ll likely find is that behavior and the mood of the school shift throughout the year. Good classes get rowdy, bad students become your favorites, and the whole group dynamic is in constant flux. Expect major cultural differences in this area and do your best to communicate honestly with trusted coworkers when you need help.

Failing Grades


Photo by Caro Wallis

One of the biggest shocks I had was discovering that students at the elementary and junior high school levels can’t fail a grade. They will always be advanced to the next grade regardless of test scores or attendance. Or so I was told by many ALTs. I never saw hard evidence of this, like a student’s actual report card. Even the wikipedia article that makes this claim lists no sources. But I did attend the graduation where all the yankis who never came to class got their diplomas. That’s some kind of evidence, I suppose.


Coming from the U.S. where fear of failing kept me studying hard, this policy really boggled my mind. A lot of other ALTs I knew were confused and shocked by this as well. A real “does not compute” kind of feeling. Especially when a student that’s been driving you nuts and not doing any work gets the graduate with those that worked hard.

But for better or worse, this is another thing that you have no control over and is best to let go. It’s been part of the Japanese way of doing school for a while and it’s probably not going to change any time soon. Really, with the education systems focus on entrance exams, it kind of makes sense. Passing on to the next grade isn’t what advances your academic career. Passing entrance exams does. In theory, someone who did no work at school, but studied hard at cram school could pass the entrance exams and get into a good high school. Conversely, someone who does great in school could still fail the entrance exams and not be able to advance academically.

Also the practical upside is that no student, no matter how difficult, will be a thorn in your side year after year.


Teachers’ Room


Photo by MC MasterChef

As mentioned above, the classroom belongs to the students and even the homeroom teacher doesn’t have a desk there. The home base for all teachers is the teachers’ room, a safe haven for lesson planning and decompression, most of the time. In theory, students aren’t allowed in the teachers’ room without permission, but this depends on the school. Schools with large numbers of rowdy students may have trouble keeping said students out, though they’ll certainly try.

Tofugu’s own Rich calls the teachers’ room his favorite part of the Japanese school system:

This room helps foster a sense of camaraderie and cooperation. Daily morning meetings allow a chance for announcements and make sure all staff members catch up on the latest events, problems, and concerns.


At first, the teachers’ room can feel a bit weird for those of us from cultures where cubicles and personal space are the norm, but the camaraderie Rich mentions is mostly due to the open setup.

Though the teachers’ room has stresses of its own, it’s a retreat from the stresses of student activity. That said, it’s not like the fabled “teachers’ lounge” in the U.S. where no student may tread. Students sometimes visit, with and without permission. Be ready for visits of curiosity and annoyance from certain kids. Some can be fun while others less so. You are still on duty while at school, so handling these situations is part of your job. Talk with your supervisor if you’re having trouble with too many visits at your desk.

Teacher Rotation


Teachers in your home country most likely work at and for a particular school. To change schools would be their choice. In Japan, however, teachers work either for the municipal or prefectural boards of education. This means that their positions are subject to change every year when the school year ends in March. A teacher could be at school for one year, ten years, or more. It all depends on the particular BOE and their secret ways, which are many and, well, secret.


Teacher rotation is tough for the ALT who may already have a tough time forming bonds in Japan as it is. If a certain JTE is great to work with, they may not be around the next year. Conversely, if a certain JTE makes for difficult collaboration, you may not have to deal with them your whole time on JET. This is certainly a mixed blessing that will keep you on your toes and constantly meeting new people.


Uniforms and Dress Code


Photo by Ryo FUKAsawa

At the elementary level, uniforms are not required. Private schools may have uniforms at this age, but most elementary students have dress codes rather than uniforms. The closest thing elementary kids have to a uniform is their cute yellow hats and hard shell randoseru backpacks.

Junior high is the beginning of the iconic Japanese school uniform, with dark jackets and pants for the boys and sailor shirts and skirts for the girls. This continues into high school, though the uniforms may be more stylish to attract higher level applicants.


Not much besides a difference in culture. Your dress will be dictated by your school and contracting organization. It could be as informal as polo shirts and blouses or as formal as suits. The practical aspects of the uniform won’t affect you. But the idea behind it, the concept of uniformity, most certainly will.

The School Year


Photo by きうこ

If you’re coming to JET from the U.S like I was, the “back to school” season may conjure memories of falling orange leaves, crisp weather, and those waning summer days. Not so in Japan. School starts in springtime. The Japanese school year begins in April and runs through March of the following year. An example schedule is as follows:

  • First Term – early April to late July
  • Summer Break – late July to late August (usually 6 weeks)
  • Second Term – early September to late December
  • Winter Break – late December to early January (usually 2 weeks)
  • Third Term – early January to late March
  • Spring Break – late March to early April (usually 1 week)

And the cycle continues…

Bear in mind that the above is an example of the norm, but exact start and end times vary throughout the country due to weather and other factors. Still, it’s very likely that your school’s schedule will look something like this one.


As a JET Program participant, you’ll arrive in Japan in late summer when the school year is halfway over. You’ll certainly be welcomed in some capacity, but you’re essentially jumping into a race that everyone else has been running for 5 months. This can make your transition a little more complicated. Bear this in mind as you start your new life. Be patient with yourself and your host environment as you get situated.

Grade Levels


Photo by Ippei Suzuki

Grade levels in Japan more or less correspond to those in other countries, with slight variations:

  • Elementary School: 1-6
  • Junior High School: 1-3
  • High School: 1-3


There isn’t a whole lot of adjusting to do in this area. It’s just good information to know. Knowing Japanese grade levels will simply give you an idea of the range of English levels you’ll be dealing with as a teacher. Junior and High school both have half the range as Elementary, which is wider. 



Photo by ajari

Classrooms belong to the students, plain and simple. Rather than move around from class to class, as is the norm in the U.S., students stay in their homeroom and teachers of various subjects come to them. The exceptions are P.E., home economics, music, certain science classes, or any subject that requires more than desk for learning to take place.

Students generally spend all years at a given school with the same group of classmates. This homeroom resides in one room, cleans that room, eats in that room, and sometimes even decorates it. This system has it pros and cons, but the end result is that school groups become a family in and of themselves.

Each class has a homeroom teacher who is expected to be involved in their students’ lives, almost like a surrogate parent. This includes home visits during which the teacher meets each student and their parents.


The “family” element of Japanese homerooms can be a lot like real families: functional and empowering or dysfunctional and detrimental (or some mixture of both). The classroom is the student’s turf, so gaining control can depend heavily on what kind of “family” you’re entering into. This doesn’t mean certain classes are “hopeless,” rather more focus on engagement may be required. This can lead to enhanced bonding with the JTE of that classroom and other rewards not offered by more compliant classes.



Photo by Tokyo Times

The no-shoes-in-the-house custom extends to school where every student has their own locker or cubby for shoes right at the entrance. (No locker for books though. Students keep all books and personal effects with them in their homerooms.)

Besides the normal indoor school shoes, there’s usually a gym shoe requirement as well to keep those shiny wooden planks their squeakiest.


You’ll also have to take off your outdoor shoes off before coming into work. Buy a comfy pair of school shoes since you’ll be wearing them 8+ hours a day. Don’t be afraid to drop some cash on an Amazon purchase for the perfect footwear. I started my JET career with a cheap pair of $20 school shoes and paid the price within a month. Get something with a lot of support. Your spine will thank you.

A minor annoyance you may run into is being unable to exit school from any doorway but the one you came in. It probably won’t happen often, but eventually you’ll need to talk to a teacher who is out on the athletic field and your outdoor shoes will be at the other end of the building.


Lunch Time


Photo by Chris Lewis

Japanese schools don’t have cafeterias and students eat in their homerooms. They eat either school provided lunch called 給食 (kyuushoku) or bring a bento from home.

Junk food is not allowed at school, not even juice. This didn’t stop my rowdy students from munching kombini snacks out of their backpacks, so don’t be too surprised if you see this rule broken from time to time.


The no junk food rule extends to teachers while students are in the building. This is the same line of thinking that keeps AC off in the teacher’s room during summer. It can be frustrating if you come from a culture where teachers enjoy privileges students don’t. Even if you don’t understand the reasoning, try to accept it as one of those things that just is the way it is (and sneak matcha kit kats from your desk when no one is looking).

Cleaning Time


Japanese schools don’t have janitors. Instead they set aside time for students to clean the building. This is called お掃除 (osouji). It’s the Pikmin approach to cleanliness. While the thoroughness of the cleaning depends on the individual student, it can’t be denied that the practice in itself is a good bonding experience that (most likely) teaches responsibility. Plus, the school usually plays wacky music around this time, which is a nice mood change.


You may or may not be asked or expected to participate in cleaning time, but give it a try anyway. It’s one of those things that makes you feel better despite not wanting to do it. Not to mention, cleaning time gives you a nice break from the teacher persona and lets you have a little more fun with your students.

Club Activities


A good slogan for Japanese schools would be “Come for the compulsory education, stay for the club activities.” Whatever the students’ feelings toward classes are, club activities are a different story. Long after school ends, clubs continue for kids to run, play, build, compete, and do anything but study. The school becomes a different place after classes end. And staying to experience it is worth your time.


You don’t have to try out for these clubs and they aren’t about competing or beating other teams. They’re more for self-improvement and togetherness. Thus, you joining a club shouldn’t be because you’re an expert who will help the team, but rather because your participation in a team will help you build skills and relationships.

If you do choose to join a club, however, be clear about how many times you intend to visit. If you visit once, it will be assumed you’re in it for good. That means every day after school and some weekends. It’s okay to visit once a week, or however you choose. Just be clear with the teacher of the club and the club members that you’ll be committing a predetermined amount of time.

School Festivals


Japanese schools have two main festivals a year: Sports Day and the Culture Festival. There may be more but these are the two you’ll most likely encounter.

  • Sports Day: Usually held in in late summer, Sports Day or 運動会 (undoukai) is a full day or two of relay races, long jumps, and various other events. It’s a great chance for friendly competition and group bonding.
  • Culture Festival: This festival is a bit more nebulous as it’s defined by MEXT as “[an event] which aims to use the results of everyday learning to heighten motivation.” It also goes by the names, Daily Life Exhibition, Learning Exhibition, and School Festival. Classrooms are transformed into cafes or stops for activities. Students perform. Food can happen. Almost anything goes at a culture festival as long as it’s nice and heightens motivation.
  • Chorus Concert: Students singing. Oh, those singing students. That’s about it.


Not much besides some days off work, organizing events, and participating in them. Festivals are a welcome break from the teaching routine. Plus there’s usually enkai after!



This has nothing to do with students and everything to do with you. Enkai are arguably one of the greatest benefits of being a teacher and you’ll want to go to as many as possible.


Eating, drinking, and karaoke. Enkai are essential morale boosting and bond forming experiences for teachers. If you’re feeling disconnected at your school, go to an enkai. It won’t fix all your problems, but it’ll certainly help a lot. At the very least you’ll get some great food and drink.

Enkai can be expensive, up to and exceeding ¥10,000. If there are many in a row, it can be tempting to start ducking out. If you really can’t afford it, by all means decline. But the JET salary is rather generous, and the money you save won’t be worth the experiences you’ll miss out on. Enkai are exclusive to those in a particular company, restricting even spouses of coworkers. If you’re invited to an enkai, you are part of a group and the more group stuff you do, the easier it is to function in that group.



Who doesn’t like a good ceremony? Japan certainly doesn’t not love them a whole damn lot. There are usually ceremonies at the open and close of each trimester. But none are more grandiose than the big two: the Entrance and Graduation Ceremonies.

The Entrance Ceremony or 入学式 (nyuugakushiki) is a momentous day for students, but more so for parents. Older students will help younger students find their classrooms where they meet their homeroom teacher and classmates. Parents congregate in the gym where the students eventually come back to join them. Then the ceremonies begin: speeches, songs, school song, more speeches, speeches, and then perhaps even a speech. Parents usually eat up the entire day snapping pictures and fixing hairs. Though probably dryer than ceremonies in western countries, the opening ceremony is not unlike mandatory school gatherings elsewhere, and this similarity is interesting to note for the visiting ALT.

Graduation Ceremony or 卒業式 (sotsugyoushiki) is much like the Entrance Ceremony but more serious. Again, there will be the school song, the national anthem, other songs, and lots of speeches. Of course, students will get up to receive their diplomas and a good deal of crying will ensue in various pockets of the gymnasium. This is probably the best ceremony because emotions are high, making it less dry and more meaningful.


For opening and closing ceremonies during the school year, it means sitting through speeches in the gymnasium. For opening and graduation ceremonies, it means experiencing a very important cultural part of Japanese life. Yes, it’s still speeches and songs but they’re speeches and songs that mean a lot to the people involved.

As a side note, pay attention to homeroom teachers sitting near you or try to sit as far away from them as you can. During certain parts of ceremonies, homeroom teachers may sit and stand over and over, which might fake you out prompting you to stand when you’re not supposed to.

When it comes to the music of the ceremony, try and learn your school song. Every school in Japan has a song. It’s fun to sing along with the teachers and students and gives a greater sense of belonging if you take the effort to learn it. My school was pretty difficult to integrate into and I found learning the school song a pretty helpful step towards feeling more motivated in my job.

Machines and Contraptions



Photo by eric_abert

There are usually large restrooms on each floor in varying degrees of modernity. Floor toilets are most common, though the teacher’s bathroom may feature a western style toilet.


If you need to go while teaching on the third floor, far from the teachers’ bathroom, it may mean toiletting with students. Floor toilets may seem intimidating or weird at first, but the position it forces you to be in is actually more natural for the human body than sitting upright.

Heating and Cooling


Japanese schools don’t usually have AC, though there are pushes here and there to have it added. There may be heating and cooling units in the teachers’ room, but this doesn’t make it a comfort sanctuary. If your school does have AC, it can’t be used until after the students leave, as teachers are expected to endure the same conditions students do. If your students are gone and it’s June 29th, you’re still out of luck. AC use is dictated by your BOE, and schools generally aren’t allowed to use it until July 1. This has everything to do with the “cool biz” campaign started in 2005 to reduce the amount of electricity used in Japan during the summer. The upside is every day in summer is casual Friday!

Schools may or may not have heat. If they do, it will be in the form of kerosene heaters in each classroom, which requires the opening of windows to keep everyone from suffocating on fumes. This may seem counterintuitive, but keeping the windows open has a second purpose: ensuring that cold and flu germs get flushed out into the open air rather than swirling around inside. There’s a lot of pros and cons to this open window winter practice, but it’s common throughout East Asia so it’s not likely to change any time soon.


This may mean a lot or very little depending on how you personally deal with hot and cold. Chances are you handle one of these well and the other not so much.

Coping with the heat means casual (but not too casual) wear every day of the week. It’s actually a nice break from the otherwise formal atmosphere. The whole school takes on a relaxed feel. The downside, of course, is it’s really REALLY hot. The second upside is taking part in Japan’s heat-enduring culture. It may feel terrible at first, but you won’t be the only one. It sucks to be hot when everyone else is comfy in their Escalades. But it’s strangely refreshing when everyone is enduring the heat together.

Coping with the cold means dressing in layers. I personally hate cold so the first month of winter with open windows was torture. But once I learned to layer from top to bottom (thermal shirts and leggings), winter actually became pretty nice. There’s also a cold enduring culture in Japan as well, which will bond you to your students and coworkers.


Differences Between Japanese and American Schools old computers

Photo by Mandias

Schools in Japan tend not to have much built in tech for the classroom, though some prefectures are experimenting with mixed results. The teachers’ room should have one or two computers, some printers, copiers, and fax machines. But that will likely be the extent of your school’s futuristic powers. The only tech in the Japanese classroom is the kind you bring with you.

Despite everything I just wrote, I will contradict it by saying that my school, while being severely inaka and low performing, had computers and projectors in every classroom. As the old and hated saying goes, every situation is different.

Tech Side Note: If you’re really lucky your school will have a room with a giant console dedicated to recording audio cassettes. Those things are awesome.


The burden of implementing slideshows, videos, audio, and other media rests on you. But even if you have an iPad to bring to class, the screen is only so big and it may not be something you want to pass around. This means that your lessons will end up analog. It’s definitely frustrating for the more tech-reliant (pointing at myself here). But constraints, though not fun, foster creativity.

Understanding Differences Between Japanese and American Schools

Differences Between Japanese and American Schools sunset and cherry blossoms

Photo by Suki Tamba

Though Japanese schools may sometimes feel upside down and backwards, the truth is they are part of a flawed and fully functional system that successfully prepares 10,000,000 human beings a year for real life. Bear in mind that while some things could stand improvement, most things work fine and are simply different. What’s more, some things in the Japanese classroom may be better than those in other countries. Consider this anecdote from American psychologist, Jim Stigler.

While visiting a classroom in Japan, Stigler observed Japanese students trying to draw a 3D cube with varying degrees of success. The teacher chose a boy who was struggling and had him come to the board to draw his cube. After an imperfect attempt, the teacher asked the class if he had done it correctly. They answered, “no.”

Stigler was terrified for the boy, but the boy didn’t get upset. Instead he continued throughout the rest of the class, after which the teacher asked again if he had gotten the cube right. The class answered, “yes” and the student returned to his seat triumphant.

What happened? Stigler explains:

I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.

The boy was allowed to struggle without judgment. These realizations can be hard to recognize without a psychology professor to point them out. But keep an eye out for them and keep reading about Japan and Japanese education during your time on JET. Understanding these things makes for much easier living. You don’t always have to agree, but it helps to know the ideas behind the realities you’re living in.

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This is only one article in our larger Tofugu JET Program Guide. It’s your experienced JET friend with the best knowledge and advice. Get help applying to JET, passing the interview, teaching, speeching, and more. The guide covers the JET experience from start to finish. It’s written by JET alumni and constantly updated.

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A Geek in Japan

If you were just beginning to learn about Japan, there might be some concepts and references in the conversation of old Japan hands that go right over your head. “I brought some omiyage from my trip to the onsen to the office, and after work we went out to an izakaya and my boss sang enka all night and told stories about how great life was before the economic bubble burst.”

A Geek in Japan is kind of like a brain dump of everything about Japan, from the trivial to the profound, that lies behind those conversations. If all the material in this book is familiar, congratulations: you don’t need it. And if you don’t yet know most of what’s in this book, it’s a pretty good crash course, with a couple of big caveats.

Nearly Everything Under the (Rising) Sun


A Geek in Japan isn’t what you might think from the title: it’s not about geeks in Japan. It’s written by a self-described geek in Japan, blogger Hector Garcia. So it’s not a compendium of otaku stuff, although that is certainly covered. Instead it’s a smorgasbord of bite-size to small-plate portions of just about everything. There are outlines of Japanese history digested down to a few paragraphs: if you don’t already know the basic “samurai → Edo period → Meiji period opening to the west” arc of Japanese history, you’ll get it here. You’ll come away knowing about ukiyo-e prints, the concept of “continuous improvement” in business, and how the custom of sort-of arranged marriages still exists. You’ll learn that the Yamanote line in Tokyo alone carries the same number of passengers as the entire New York City subway system in a day (and that if you choose wrong out of the 200 exits at Shinjuku station you may be a half-mile away from your destination.)

The author explains little details of everyday life that Westerners wonder about. Like why people wear face masks, or cover their hands with their mouths when they laugh, and answers the question “OMG why are there things that look like swastikas on this temple?!” There are nice illustrations and explanations of practical stuff that is useful for tourists, like photographs of all the parts of a temple and what they are. In general the book is heavy on photographs and nicely laid out.


Despite my severe reservations about some of the broad claims about language in A Geek in Japan that I will relate later, it has some fun practical points. For example if someone uses the word “chotto“, despite the dictionary definition of “a little,” they’re trying to tell you “no.”

Of course the otaku stuff is in here. And because we don’t all come to our interest in Japan from anime and manga, this will be useful for some people. There are definitions of concepts like moe and lolita and whole chapters about the development of anime, manga, and TV and movies. Because the book was published in 2010, the popular culture sections may be a bit out of date. But much of it is history and many of the musical groups listed are still hugely popular, so they’re still relevant.

While you can certainly find all of this information elsewhere, it’s usually not all in the same book. And some of the details he relates go beyond the typical explanations.

When Garcia covers iconic cute animals he doesn’t stick to the usual tanuki statue and waving cat. He mentions the sunfish, one of the many random animals Americans may not realize are popular in Japan. When he tells you that you can’t visit the Ichiriki ocha-ya made famous by Memoirs of a Geisha, he points you to the Starbucks next door when you’re likely to see the geisha coming and going.

When he talks about falling sales of manga, he describes how in the 90s, you’d usually see ten people in a train car reading manga, but now you’ll see twenty on their phones, three on their hand-held game console and one reading manga.

He tells you how to order your sake at the temperature you want, and says “If you pull out the words atsukan or nurukan in a shabby restaurant full of old people, you’ll be a big success!” Fun details like this make it clear that he’s lived this life and isn’t just reporting it second-hand.

Reasonable people could probably argue interestingly for hours about whether some of what’s in A Geek in Japan is a recitation of stereotypes. It’s hard to avoid stereotypes when trying to explain the difference between cultures. But I think you could say that they are actually valuable to know. For example, the more you know about Japan, the more you realize that there is a lot more divorce than you’d imagine from the stereotype. But the family life he describes of the mother obsessed with the children’s schooling and the father who doesn’t get home from work till midnight is probably what the Japanese themselves see as the typical family. That’s a useful thing to know even if real life will often deviate from expectations.

The book concludes with a few chapters about travel, highlighting well-known places in Tokyo and his offbeat favorites, as well as what he considers essential places to visit elsewhere in country. The unique (and best) part of this section has to be item #1 on his list of General Advice For Travelers: “Don’t Worry.”

His suggestions on where to visit in Tokyo are a little heavily weighted to the otaku areas (no surprise), but on the whole it’s a decent travel guide. I even came away with a couple of ideas for places to go myself, which I didn’t expect. The info about technology (banks, phone, internet access, etc) is out of date, but some of that is changing so fast right now that any printed book, even a brand new one, is going to be behind the times.



While it’s encyclopedic, A Geek in Japan is written in the voice of one person. That makes it more enjoyable to read, but also means that there is no counterbalancing influence when he goes off the rails. There are two big problems in my opinion: most of what he says about language, and (often connected) the pronouncements he makes about “how Japanese people think” and “Japanese minds.”

You should be immediately suspicious when anyone makes reference to “untranslatable” words or concepts. You’ll notice that such a statement is always followed by translations. Which should make you wonder about the validity of the reasoning, don’t you think? He does this early on in the book (page 6) so at least you know from the start to have your guard up whenever he turns to the topic of language.

Take the sidebar on page 39 where he points out that the kanji for “husband” consists of the radicals “main” and “person” and the one for “wife” is made up of “house” and “inside” and implies that this is a reflection of attitudes about gender that “remain strong in the Japanese mind.” Yes, women’s status isn’t the same as it is in other countries. And there’s no doubt a historical explanation about gender relations that explains why those words are what they are. But you’d need to write a whole psycholinguistics dissertation to prove that writing the words that way still influences people’s thinking as opposed to being merely a historical relic. So without the footnoted references to any such research, you should take this kind of connection with a pillar of salt.

Such claims about language often dovetail with his other type of dubious pronouncement, as on page 13 where he claims that the kanji writing system “causes the Japanese to think differently from us” and that “their minds work on the basis of images.”

It’s too bad an editor didn’t pull back on the reins here. Yes, Japanese culture is different. The habitual ways of approaching problems, interacting with others, etc, which have developed over a long history, are different. But human minds are human minds just as human beings are all equally human beings. To suggest that Japanese minds are different in some fundamental way is a slippery slope.

So be aware that you’ll fairly often run into such pronouncements, not all of which have to do with language. For example, the claim that because of the influence of Zen, “those who have met a Japanese person will agree that almost all are calm and patient people.” Again, culture may dictate that people behave this way on the surface, but I have no doubt that every Japanese person you meet is the same mess of emotions underneath as the rest of us. As for the claim that all Japanese people “love work above everything else” (page 65), you can judge how likely that is for yourself.



While I think the two problems above are pretty serious ones, I’m also sure that any level-headed person can see through them. So you’re capable of bringing some critical thinking to a book and still enjoying it and learning from it.

A Geek in Japan covers an unusual, maybe unique combination of many different basic things about Japan in a fun way. There a couple of gaps as far as subject matter, from my point of view. If it were my brain being dumped into a book like this, there’d be a lot more about food. He makes good observations about how central food is to the culture – that Japanese travel guides basically look like a catalog of restaurants and that there are food shows where people do almost nothing but talk about eating food. But if it’s that important, shouldn’t there be more than a couple of pages devoted to the subject? There’s also is little or nothing about folklore, despite how important it is to manga and anime, which he covers at some length.

If you already have some expertise in a Japanese subject, you’ll no doubt find similar things here and there that you think he’s missed or is wrong about. But honestly in that case this book isn’t meant for you. It’s for the beginner to maybe intermediate level Japan-obsessive. If you’re in the process of learning about Japan, you will eat this up. Don’t take everything he says as gospel, but it’s a good starting point for a whole lot of stuff you’re going to want to know if you want to go to Japan someday.

This book would also be a great gift for someone who was going to Japan not as their own choice – say, in the military or following a spouse for a job – and had no previous interest in culture. Along with a lot of useful information and context, it also debunks common myths like “geisha are prostitutes.” Probably not something Tofugu readers need to be told, but still a common association in most people’s minds.

If you’ve been to Japan or are living/have lived in Japan, this book won’t offer you much. But if you’re new to Japan knowledge this book will help you a good deal. Just be sure to cross reference it with other sources some day down the line.

Buy: Amazon


Rating: 7/10


Seria: Japan’s Best 100 Yen Shop

100 yen shops, aka 100円ショップ (hyaku en shoppu) or 百均 (hyakkin), are a type of discount store that sells a wide range of products for only 100 yen (tax excluded). 100 yen is roughly one US or Canadian dollar. I know that there are dollar shops in North America too, but I personally think that the variety and quality of the products are much better in Japan. The top three are Daiso, Seria and Cando. Today I am going to introduce you to my favorite one – SERIA!

seria 100 yen shop entrance

First of all, let me briefly talk about the company. Seria Co., Ltd is a hyakkin corporation whose headquarter is located in Ogaki city in Gifu prefecture. Actually, it’s a big company with stock listed on the JASDAQ stock exchange and overs 1000 shops nationwide. But since the headquarter is in Gifu, most shops are in Chubu area. The company was founded in 1985, the same year I was born.

Seria means “serious” in Italian. They are so serious that they promise to seriously pursue products that move customers’ hearts and decorate and color their daily lives through and through. Whoa!

Now let’s see how serious they are, and look at all of their products aisle by aisle. How much can you get for only 100 yen? More than you think.

Seria 100 yen shop dishes

Seria 100 yen shop casserole dishes on a shelf

The design of most  of the dishes are simple. The mini casserole dishes were coated with nonstick coating (so you won’t need to put oil or butter in it).

They also have pretty Polish style dishes, which I thought I’d taken the photo but I didn’t. I’m sorry. You can kind of see one of the Polish style bowl on the right side of the top third shelf…yes, that blue one! Cute, deshou? If you can’t find it, then click here and you’ll see pics of those dishes posted on Twitter.

Seria 100 yen shop mugs

I didn’t find anything really special in their mug section. But at least all the handles are right side up (I once bought a white mug with an upside down handle from another 100 yen store once). Actually, the rotation of 100 yen shop products is pretty fast. You may find something cute when you visit there like this, but the next time you go it may be gone. Grab things you like while you can!

Seria 100 yen shop jars

I was surprised by the variety of jars. Serving dishes, salads, or deserts in jars (especially in mason jars) is getting popular in Japan. I guess they are seriously trying to meet the demand.

Seria 100 yen shop soy sauce holders

Seria doesn’t only track on trends. They also have a lot of traditional products too. Here are a lot of choices of soy sauce jars (aka soy sauce cruets).

Seria 100 yen shop chopsticks

Seria 100 yen shop chopsticks for kids

They offer chopsticks for both adults and children. The adult ones were very Japanesey whereas ones for children were really cute. You can’t really tell from the picture, but Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio or other cute characters are on the top edge of some chopsticks. There were also practice chopsticks or tools to convert normal chopsticks into a practice pair.

Seria 100 yen shop bento stuff

Oh, and we can’t skip this part in the kitchen section – bento boxes! You know how Japanese people into arrange foods into art called “deko-ben,” right? Well, of course serious Seria has a ton of goods to meet this demand.

Seria 100 yen shop bento decorations

Picks, small sauce containers, aluminum cups with designs on them, and more! Everything you need to turn the food in your bento into a work of art.

Seria 100 yen shop bento boxes and molds

Of course you need a bento as stylish and eye-catching as the art you put in it, right? Seria has you covered here too.

Seria 100 yen shop bento clips

But wait. There’s more! Decoration pens and stamp cutters to create cute faces in flat foods.

Seria 100 yen shop bento creation goods

Don’t jump ship just yet. There’s more bento madness to be seen. These molds let you bake all kinds of petite desserts using pancake mix and your microwave. Piece of cake!

Seria 100 yen shop cloths and placemats

Now that we have all our bento decoration supplies, we need to think about decorating the home. There are also many cute coasters and place mats to make your meal more enjoyable.

Seria 100 yen shop mt fuji coaster

Here is my favorite: Mt.Fuji coasters. It’s so kawaii that I bought more than a few.

Seria 100 yen shop aisle

Okay, I guess you’ve seen enough to learn how serious Seria is about kitchen goods. What else?

Seria 100 yen shop fans

Folding fans! You gotta keep cool in summer and look good doing it.

Seria 100 yen shop windchimes

Of course, summertime in Japan means wind chimes. If you don’t hear cicadas and wind chimes, it’s just not summer.

Seria 100 yen shop tenugui

Whoa! You’re sweating a lot. Better grab some of these tenugui to dry yourself off. (You know Tofugu has tenugui too, right?)

Seria 100 yen shop gardening tools

Now that you’re set to handle the heat, get outside and use your green thumb. There are all kinds of gardening tools available for just 100 yen each. What, you thought I’d let you stay inside and watch anime all summer?

Seria 100 yen shop cleaning supplies

When your house is a god awful mess, head to this section to clean it up. Or sell your house. Your choice.

Seria 100 yen shop hair accessories

I’ve always thought your hair was so pretty. Pretty hair deserves pretty hair accessories, don’t you think? Which one is your favorite?

Seria 100 yen shop socks

Japan is a sock loving culture. So Japanese socks are the best around. Because you take off your shoes when going indoors, you’ll be seeing a lot of your socks. But you don’t have to spend a lot to make your feet look nice.

Seria 100 yen shop party favors

Party time! You can get all kinds of games and costumes for cheap. You could be a frog, a ninja, a kappa, or a chicken. Kappa hat? I’d buy that for a dollar! (which is roughly equivalent to 100 yen, mind you.)

There are a lot more products Seria has to offer. Most of them are really neat and cute. If I continue listing things like I’ve been doing, this travel post would be too long to read. So, lastly, I want to introduce Seria’s specialty: handcraft goods! They even have some directions for making crafts using their products. You can find these “recipes” on Seria’s website.

Seria 100 yen shop craft scissors

As you may know, many 100 yen or dollar stores have products priced higher than a dollar. Unlike other stores, however, Seria is so serious that they literally sell all their products for 100 yen each. You can even see a glue gun is sold for 100 yen in the photo. That’s crazy!

Seria 100 yen shop fake food

おいしそう! But you can’t eat them. These are all for handcrafts. All these little sweets are for decorating your smartphone cover or whatever things you want to bedazzle.

Seria 100 yen shop flowers

What are these? Piercings? No, they are curtain clips, which some say are the earrings of the living room. Actually, no one says that.

There are a lot more things to color your days in this serious Seria. Their products are not only useful but also really stylish. By now, you can probably understand why this place is my favorite 100 yen shop. If you want to indulge in your secret shopping mania, this is the safest place to do it. Fill your life with possessions without losing too much money!

Seria 100 Yen Shop Rating

  • Uniqueness: 4/10 – There are many 100 yen shops in Japan and Seria is everywhere, so I suppose it’s not that unique. Having said that, this is the most stylish 100 yen shop, so I rated it a 4.
  • Accessibility: 7/10 – There are a lot of Serias in Japan. Some are located in very convenient places, whereas others are quite far from train stations. For example, this specific one I visited is at 2 Chome-4-2 Abemokuzaidanchi, Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture, and you have to walk 2km (25 mins) from Sakurai station of JR or Kintetsu line. It really depends and all the shops are pretty much the same, so I rated it a 7. You can check all the locations of the shop here.
  • Seriousness: 10/10 – They are so serious to color customers’ days. There are tons of neat products. They also provide ideas for using their products on their website, and I think it is really kind. Thus, I rated it a 10.
  • Overall: 8/10 – This is one of places I always stop by when I come back to Japan. I definitely recommend you check it out too. You may find cool souvenirs and/or some really cute items to make your life more enjoyable. I rated it an 8.


Rating: 8/10

Seria 100 Yen Shop Access

Again, Seria is all over Japan. Check out the Seria website if you want to find one near you:

If you really want to visit the one I visited in this post:


The 3 Anime You Should Watch This Season: Summer 2015

Looks like it’s time to beat the summer heat by sippin’ some Chu-Hi and watchin’ some anime. Last season was pretty decent, but which shows are worth watching this season? Well, Rich and I have some ideas for you. We watched most of the new shows that came out this summer and are happy to share with you our top picks. Hopefully all of our hard work pays off and helps you find your new favorite show. Onward!


Before starting the season, DBS was pretty much the only one I had some sort of expectation for. And that expectation was that it’d be better than DBGT. And it was. Hooray. But the season did offer up some additional interests. I dunno if I’ll see any of them all the way through, but I’m pretty happy with what I’ve seen so far. Let’s get into my picks.

Dragon Ball Super


I’m sure many of you are at least somewhat familiar with Dragon Ball. Super is the latest iteration of it, taking place about 6 months after the defeat of Majin Buu. The world is at peace, and the Dragon Balls were used to make everyone forget about all the nonsense that happened. Vegeta is a family man, Goku is a farmer, and Gohan is a boring student. Life is simple and quaint. But there is a looming darkness in the universe that looks to be coming closer and closer to our heroes.

Dragon Ball Z was one of the first anime I ever really got into so this show holds a lot of nostalgia value for me, especially after the relative disappointment of GT. I even included it in my Personal Top 10 Anime list. The first couple episodes here are pretty slow and lacking action. But it’s kind of nice to just get a glimpse into the everyday humdrum life of the characters we know and love. It looks like the action is going to start to ramp up soon though, so I’m looking forward to that.

If you were never into Dragon Ball that much, this series probably won’t change your mind. But it’s a nice treat for people who are already fans of the series.

Rokka no Yuusha


The Demon God has arisen and it’s up to six chosen heroes to defeat him. Legend tells of how the six are market by the Saint of the Single Flower and then it is up to these heroes to defeat the god until the process starts all over again. Only problem is that the chosen heroes have no way of finding the others, so they gotta run around and group up before finally traveling west to go kick the Demon God in his behind.

I really like the look of this anime. The style and the colors and the music is all really well done and pleasant. It very much reminds me of a Tales game. It might have something to do with the main character looking like Luke from Tales of the Abyss. But no matter what it’s a good thing. The show is exciting, funny, and interesting and probably the one I’m looking forward to the most this season. The story might be a little shallow, but the characters and the setting make it compelling.



In the world of Charlotte, some people are blessed with special abilities. Our main dude can take over another’s body for five seconds, but loses all control of his own during that time. So far he’s used it to cheat in school, pick up babes, and get revenge on some jerks. Nothing special. Then one day he is taken away to a special school for kids with abilities so it can be made sure they don’t cause any harm to themselves or others.

This show was a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting it to be so entertaining and funny. All of the powers displayed by the characters so far have some amusing drawback and it was really funny to see how the main character made creative use of his. I’m not sure what to expect from the story. This is another one of those shows where the characters really make the show. The main character is fun to watch, and I just hope that the show can keep up the momentum. Oh, and also – the music is really good. As you might be able to tell from that PV up there.


Japan jam-packs its summer with movies, anime and drama. And the anime summer 2015 season is no different. This season, Dragon Ball fans, both old and young, can join together and bask in the glory of the new series, Dragon Ball Super. I would have made it one of my picks, but the series looks to continue where Z left off; both Dragon Ball fans and haters know what to expect. This season also ushers in the return of series like Wangaria, Durarara, Non Non Biyori, Gatchaman Crowds and Junjou Romantica. Meanwhile Yowamushi Pedal, Haikyu, and Ghost in the Shell are sure to fill air conditioned movie theaters. With so much to choose from, here are my three picks for this stacked anime season!

Non Non Biyori Repeat


“Starting this spring I’ll be my village’s one and only bright, shiny ichinensei.” And so starts Non Non Biyori Repeat; the sequel to Non Non Biyori, a cute, slice of life comedy akin to Azumanga Daioh.

In Non Non Biyori Repeat, a handful of students from a small town Japanese elementary school have innocent and silly life experiences. Don’t expect a heavy plot or deep character development. Biyori Repeat offers a light relaxing experience, perfect for those hot and humid summer days.

I’m enjoying this series because the characters remind me of my kindergarten and elementary school students. Their logic and innocent reactions have an authentic flavor. That being said, Non Non Biyori Repeat will be too light, too cute, and too uneventful for many viewers. But fans of light-hearted affair like Azumanga Daioh and K-On! should enjoy this easygoing comedy.

Ushio and Tora


After an original manga run from 1990 to 1996, Ushio and Tora’s anime has been a long time coming. Although an OVA came out in the early 1990s, the ten episode run barely scratched the series’s surface. Perhaps fans owe Japan’s current yo-kai boom for Ushio and Tora’s revival.

When junior high school student Ushio mistakenly releases Tora, a legendary demon put to rest by his ancestors, all sorts of spirits and monsters start showing up. To protect his family, friends and put an end to the yokai infused madness, Ushio is forced to team with the finicky, uncooperative demon. Will the unlikely pair cooperate and save the world or kill each other in the process?

Ushio and Tora stays close to the source material, both in visual style and themes. The fun, yokai filled adventures have enough battles and laughs to please both longtime fans and newcomers alike. If you like Yu Yu Hakusho and Kikkaishi, you should give this action-packed mishmash of yokai and school life a look.



Gangsta takes me back to a time when anime first debuted on adult swim. The series would fit in right alongside Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Outlaw Star. Gangsta’s adult-themed world has all the gritty, stylized stuff that goes over well in the West.

Overwhelmed by the growing power of gangs and drug cartels, local police hire street smart tough guys, “The Handymen” Nic and Worick, to help take care of the dirty work. The two jump headfirst into the dangerous world without hesitation and continue to find excuses to take on the baddies throughout the series.

With edgy characters, a European-flavored setting and its share of mystery, sex, and action, I found Gangsta the most intriguing series of the summer season. Whether Gangsta will embrace a focused narrative and develop deep characters or continue a simple onslaught of cool violent confrontations, I’ll be watching.

Anime Summer 2015 Parting Thoughts


Rich: Alongside these picks, I look forward to continuing my holdovers from last season, My Love Story and Shogeki no Soma. For those looking for a satisfying single-serve anime experience, look no further than Little Witch Academia: Mahou Shikake no Parade. The gorgeous animation, charming characters, and fantastic world compliment this sweet, innocent, yet thrilling roller-coaster ride of an adventure. In under an hour, Little Which Academia offers a more well rounded, rich narrative than some series twelve times the length. Hope you find something cool to keep you cool during this summer’s heat… unless you live below the equator and it’s winter – then, by all means stay warm!

John: Just an aside, Gangsta was nearly edged out of my top 3 by Charlotte. I think Gangsta looks pretty promising as well. That aside – I’m guessing that eventually the nostalgia value will wear off with DBS, and surprisingly I think I’m going to have to say Charlotte is my top pick this season. It looks good, sounds good, and keeps me chuckling. Hopefully the rest of the season doesn’t let me down!

So what were your top picks for the anime summer 2015 season? Any favorites from last season? Let us know in the comments!


PLATAKU – The Takara Tomy Plarail Cafe Full of Trains

Japan is well known for its themed cafes. Cat cafes have become common in recent years. Now there are even goat cafes and owl cafes you can visit in Japan. But the cafe I want to talk about today isn’t animal themed. It’s toy themed. Toy train themed, to be specific. Takara Tomy Plarail toy train themed to be super specific.

Toy trains may be niche hobby. And you a very specific brand of Japanese toy train is even more niche. But Takara Tomy Plarail has a a very loyal following. There’s a Plarail Expo that’s been held in Tokyo for over ten years. There’s Plarail clothing and school items. 72% of Japanese children own Plarail toys (that number is according to Takara Tomy itself, so take it with a grain of salt).

So it makes sense there would be a cafe. You don’t sell toy trains for over 55 years and not get a themed cafe for your products. In fact you do. And I went to it.

takara tomy plarail cafe storefront

“What separated Plarail from other toy trains?” you may ask. Good question. For one thing, Plarail is plastic, making it very kid friendly. No stabby metal pieces here. Also none of the pieces are compatible with other trains sets. So if you’re a Plarail kid, you’re PlaRail all the way. Get a tattoo. Plarail 4 Life. By the way, Plarail is pronounced as “play rail” in English, but in Japanese we say “プラレール.”

Anyway, time to go inside the Plarail Cafe.

takara tomy plarail cafe tower of trains

Once inside you’ll notice this awesome train tower the cafe has built for your enjoyment. You’re meant to watch the trains as you eat your snacks and drink your drinks. So please do so when you come here.

takara tomy plarail cafe keihan

On the wall is a series of photos of various Plarail models. Apparently they recreated every station on the KEIHAN line in Plarail! That’s pretty impressive. It would have been nice to actually see these stations rather than just photos. But that would require a bigger cafe, I think.

takara tomy plarail cafe trains for sale

takara tomy plarail cafe accessories for sale

What would a Plarail Cafe be without Plarail items to buy? If you’re a newbie, you can start your collection. If you’re already big into Plarail, you can buy more pieces to fortify your massive collection. Just make sure to hide it from your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/mom/dad/anyone that cares about you because they’ll be mad you bought more Plarail. You promised after you finished recreating the landscape from Snowpiercer you’d be done!

takara tomy plarail cafe play area mother and child playing

Once you’ve purchased unreasonable amounts of Plarail accessories, it’s time to play! There’s a play area in the back. There may only be children in this area, but that shouldn’t stop you from plopping down and playing with your trains. Right? Right?!

takara tomy plarail cafe shoes off

But, don’t forget to take off your shoes. The child that took of these shoes also took off his socks. But I don’t think that’s necessary. Or sanitary.

Hey look, he’s got Anpanman socks!

takara tomy plarail cafe cake menu

Time to order some train-themed food. They had sushi and all kinds of various dishes. But you can get that anywhere. You can’t come to the Plarail Cafe and not get the shinkansen shaped cake. There’s three kinds to choose from!

takara tomy plarail cafe video menu

After you order, you can use this laminated piece of paper to watch Plarail movies on your phone or tablet. Just use the QR codes to bring up the various YouTube videos. Or you can just look over at the giant Plarail tower right next to you. You are in the Plarail Cafe after all.

takara tomy plarail cafe cake

Yay! My shinkansen cake finally arrived at my table. To be honest, I expected an overly sweet, artificial tasting cake, but I was wrong. It had just the right sweetness, fluffiness, and a beautifully creamy presence throughout. I really liked it. Next time I’m gonna try the E5-Hayabusa and Dr. Yellow cakes.

Plarail Cafe Rating

  • Uniqueness: 9/10 – I know that there are a few train cafés, but they are really quite rare, so I rated it as a 9.
  • Taste: 8/10 – The cake was really good. I’m not sure about their other food, but the cake certainly made my visit, so I gave it an 8.
  • Accessibility: 8/10 – It’s a 5-minute walk from Keisei Takasago station.
  • Overall: 7/10 – I’d like to go back to try another Shinkansen cake. It’s probably a good idea to take somebody who has never been there either. Unfortunately, however, I am not a fan of Plarail, so I couldn’t rate higher than 7. If you like Plarail or trains, you’ll likely really enjoy your time here.


Rating: 7/10

Plarail Cafe Access

  • Address: 3-8-16 Takasago, Katsushika-ku, Tōkyō-to, Japan
  • Phone: 03-6322-1679
  • Open: 10:00~19:00
  • Closed: Wednesday


Takara Tomy, 1


JET Program Survival Resources

While researching the Tofugu JET Guide, I came across a wealth of information. Blogs, websites, wikis, forums, the list goes on. So many people are writing so much about life in Japan and on JET.

So it’s only right to share the resources I was most impressed with. These are sites I bookmarked and kept coming back to in my research. The best of the best.

Naturally, no one site contains all the information pertinent to everyone ever. So it’s good to look through the links below and see what uniqueness each has to offer. I’ve done my best to highlight what makes each one special.

Hopefully this page can be a resource for JETs looking for answers. Good luck!

Official JET Program Links



This is help from above, so to speak. The official word from the people who sent you to Japan and/or are in charge of you. This advice can feel stiff at first. After all, it’s from the bosses so there is a certain veneer of formality that goes along with this type of writing. Nonetheless, there is a lot of great stuff in here. A lot of problems JETs faced are covered in these links and covered well. Read all this stuff before digging into other resources.

The JET Programme

This seems like a no-brainer. But few JETs check through the “official” JET help documents. While CLAIR may give you dry advice or gloss over tough issues, its resources are actually incredibly helpful if you take the time to dig. The General Information Handbook (GIH) alone clears up a lot of concerns held by JETs during their tenure. On top of this, CLAIR offers New JET Guides, ALT Handbooks, Teaching Materials, and Returners’ Guides. Consider these resources the “Read Before Posting” guidelines of the JET Program. Clean and official, but very helpful.


Visit: The Official JET Program Website


AJET (The Association for JET) is an official/unofficial organization. It’s officially the unofficial support network for all JETs in Japan. Being tied to CLAIR but not ruled by it means their help is down to earth and high quality. Their teaching materials are top-notch, as are their guides to life and work in Japan. You could get all the help you need from AJET and be just fine.


Visit: The AJET Resource Page

CLAIR’s Information for Foreigners in Japan

This a site/directory created by CLAIR for foreigners living in Japan. It covers everything from marriage to taxes to garbage to job searching. If it’s something you have to do in life, this site probably talks about doing it in Japan. What I find strange is that this is made by CLAIR, the same organization which oversees JET. Why is this site not shared with JETs? Sure, it’s not JET-specific. But all JETs live in Japan and could benefit from this site. Whatever the reason, you have the link now. Give the site a look and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of useful information.


Visit: Multilingual Living Information

Shimane PAs

The Prefectural Advisors of Shimane-ken did a great job setting up a resource blog for their JETs. Though many things are Shimane-specific, any JET or expat in Japan should benefit from 70% of everything here. The best part is, it’s still active. So hopefully there’s more goodness to come.


Visit: Help from Shimane PAs

Ibaraki PAs

The PAs of Ibaraki have started a nice website for JETs in their prefecture. Right now there’s not much in the way of resources, but they do have an interesting feature: Ask Ibaraki JET PAs. ALTs ask questions about their job and the PAs give honest and helpful feedback. It seems to be updated rather frequently so hopefully it continues. In a year it could make for a treasure trove of Dear Abby style advice for ALTs.


Visit: Help from Ibaraki PAs

By JETs, For JETs


Almost every prefecture in Japan has JET Participant-created website meant to aid the community. Some of the resources on these pages will only apply to people living in or visiting that specific prefecture. But the majority of articles, guides, and clickables will help any JET anywhere.

If your prefecture’s website doesn’t offer the answers you’re looking for, or you’d just like a second opinion, click some of the links below. You’ll be surprised how much advice and wisdom you’ll pick up from these sites.

The JET Coaster

This site is unique to this list in that it is unofficial. It’s curated by a group of former JETs who give awesome JET advice to newcomers and those currently on the program. It’s relatively new, but already has a good deal of solid content. This site is often updated, giving it a big advantage over those that are helpful, though stagnant.


Visit: The JET Coaster

Kumamoto JET

Definitely one of the best. Consistently updated. High quality content. I could go on.

KumamotoJET is featured prominently in Tofugu’s Guide to Lesson Planning, and it’s no slouch when it comes to the rest of JET life. Their Tax Guide alone is worth the visit. It’s only applicable to U.S. residents, but it’s incredibly detailed. If you’re a JET from the U.S., check it out for sure.


Visit: Kumamoto JET

Kyoto JETs

Kyoto JETs has a great collection of information. It will take some crawling but its worth the effort. The standouts are the Disaster Preparedness section and the Tax Guide. Most sites don’t even address disaster (surprisingly), so that alone is worth a click.


Visit: Kyoto JETs

JET Sendai

This is one of my favorites (which is why it’s near the top). JET Sendai covers a lot of ground and their explanations of procedures untangle complicated situations. Short, sweet, and to the point. If you need help in a hurry, head to JET Sendai. ‘Nuff said.


Visit: Sendai JET

Hyogo AJET

The website is rather bare bones in terms of design but it has a ton of useful content. It doesn’t cover every aspect of JET life. But what it does cover is unique and useful. More obscure and offbeat topics are covered here. Definitely recommended.


Visit: Hyogo JET

Akita JET

Don’t let the plain presentation fool you. The Akita JET wiki has a lot to offer. Though some entries are a little shallow, the Akita wiki covers a lot. If you’re facing a strange or abstract situation, visit this site. The answer just might be there.


Visit: Akita JET

Saga JET

The Saga JET Programme site is pretty nice. Cute layout. Good amount of info. It takes some digging to find the good stuff though. Most of the advice ends up being Saga-specific. So you may click on a link thinking, “Wow! I really need to know this,” only to find the advice contained applies only to people living in Saga. Nevertheless, keep poking around. There are a lot of gems in here that will apply to anyone living in Japan.


Visit: Saga JET

Gunma JET

Honestly, I just have fun on this site. Maybe it’s the layout. The colors. I don’t know. All the resources are very complete and personal. One of my favs. It includes a unique furikomi guide. You’ll probably be taught how to use this by your supervisor, but it’s great in case you forget or are never taught.


Visit: Gunma JET

Yamaguchi AJET

This is a very clean and navigable site. It has very complete resources for incoming and outgoing JETs. Not as much for life in between, unless you live in Yamaguchi. They have intensely detailed descriptions of every city in the prefecture. If you’re placed in Yamaguchi, it’s an excellent resource. If not, maybe it might be worth visiting. Going on a trip with such a detailed guide can make for a great experience.


Visit: Yamaguchi AJET

Okinawa JET

The Okinawa JET website covers most aspects of JET life. Their guides and articles are mid-size, which can be a good thing. If you’re overwhelmed by comprehensive explanations elsewhere, it’s helpful to read shorter versions of the same information.

Also, OkiJET has an Island Guide. With beautiful beaches and resorts, chances are you’ll want to head down Okinawa way at least once. The Island Guide will give you the resident’s perspective not found in most travel guides.


Visit: OkiJET

Mie JETs

Mie JETs is a little tough to navigate at first, but the information is worth the effort. It’s set up like a wiki but isn’t called one. A wiki by any other name is still a wiki. Check here if you can’t find answers anywhere else.


Visit: Mie JETs

Oita JETs

OitaJET is relatively new, but still sports a lot of content. Hopefully new things will continue to be added. Until then, enjoy the clean layout and unique features.


Visit: Oita JETs

Kagoshima JET

The PAs of Kagoshima have created some original and helpful content. A lot of the common “Guides for Living” include abstract questions to aid in development. It’s nice to see a personal touch once in a while.


Visit: Kagoshima JET


Maybe the cutest logo of all Prefectural sites. Like others in this list, OkaJET offers its take on JET life. It also chimes in on regional issues like rainy season survival which you are likely to experience anywhere in Japan.


Visit: OkaJET

Toyama JETs

Though the site is very pretty, I was put off by navigation. But I pushed through and found some good content. The medical information was the most helpful, in my opinion.


Visit: Toyama JETs

Fukuoka JET

Fukuoka JET’s resources are hit or miss. Some are detailed and helpful. Others not so much. Poke around the site and see what you can find. The School Calendar Kanji guide was pretty unique and could be helpful to ALTs wanting to stay in the loop at their schools.


Visit: Fukuoka JET

Ishikawa JET Wiki

Very complete and has the advantage of being a wiki. Unfortunately it’s a wikia wiki, so be prepared for ads, ads, ads! The experience is slow, but content might be worth it.


Visit: The Ishikawa JET Wiki


Tokushima has a pretty little site. Still sparse on info, but what it does have fairly complete and easy to find. Thumbs up!


Visit: TokushimaJET

Ehime AJET

Ehime AJET is a little on the small side, but has some hidden gems. It’s pop culture events guide is unique as well as the shipping guide. Good stuff for vegetarians. Worth a look.


Visit: Ehime AJET


Shizuoka AJET (or Shizajet) is still getting started. Hopefully it will expand with time. I did really like their Top 5 Lists, which are a good collection of advice and ideas for ALTs in digestible form. More stuff like this please, Shizajet!


Top 5 Lists

Visit: ShizaJET


The Niigata JET site isn’t too different from those listed above. It has a nice little blog that’s worth clicking through for personal insights. I thought their section on culture shock had some unique things to say.


Visit: NiigataJET



Photo by kinpi3

If you didn’t get enough survival help from your fellow JETs above, here are some non-JET related links to take care of any loose ends you’re still fighting with. Really, the first link in this list is the jam. Keep reading and see what I mean.

Surviving in Japan

No joke, this site is what inspired this list. All the other sites listed are very helpful, but this one is extremely, overwhelmingly helpful. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since 2013. Fortunately the articles left over are pure gold. This is all the nitty gritty stuff most guides don’t bother to cover.

Which toothpastes have fluoride? Where to find foods from home? What kinds of foundation match which non-Japanese skin colors?

I really can’t say enough good things about this site. Check it out and be amazed.

Visit: Surviving in Japan

Just Landed

This is an online community for expats in every country. The topics covered are fairly comprehensive, but not as deep as really good sites. Check here if you’ve checked everywhere else. You might find some answers or links you’re looking for.

Visit: Just Landed

Japan Post Communication Guide

This is a chart from the Japanese post office that helps foreigners use the Japanese post office. Makes a good language study tool.

Visit: The Japanese Post Office

Hyperdia & Jorudan

These are both Japanese train time calculators. I included them for completeness’ sake, but Google Maps does the same task better. Use these if you have an aversion to Google Maps.

Visit: Hyperidia

Visit: Jorudan

Japanese Toll Calculator Guide

Road trippin’ in Japan? Calculate the tolls you’ll have to pay on your cross country tour. Don’t forget the snacks! Seriously. Don’t forget the snacks.

Visit: Japan Toll Calculator

Import Foods


Food is one of the things you’ll miss most while on JET. Sometimes a tough bout of culture shock can be cured with a bit of cheese or some sour patch kids. Thankfully there are some websites that offer import and foreign foods delivered straight to your door.

The Flying Pig

This is probably the most famous resource. The Flying Pig delivers Costco items. Considering there aren’t many Costco locations in Japan and they may be hard to get to for most JETs, this is a big deal. The Flying Pig offers comforts of home as often as you like.

Visit: The Flying Pig

Foreign Buyers’ Club

The Foreign Buyers’ Club goes beyond Costco to just about everywhere else. Almost anything you can imagine, they’ve got. Try not to spend your whole paycheck.

Visit: The Foreign Buyers’ Club

The Meat Guy

Pretty self-explanatory. He’s a guy. He sells meat. His prices are pretty reasonable and you can get almost any kind of meat in any size. Even Thanksgiving turkey! Put your burger and bacon cravings to rest once and for all.

Visit: The Meat Guy

Tengu Natural Foods

For whole, natural, and organic foods. Tengu is the best way to eat right in Japan.

Visit: Tengu Natural Foods

Yoyo Market

Yoyo offers items from Costco and a little bit more. If it’s for sale anywhere in Japan, chances are they can get their hands on it.

Visit: Yoyo Market

Legal Help


Photo by Roy Berman

Hopefully you won’t need these links while on JET.

Japanese Law Translations

Unofficial translations of Japanese laws and regulations. If you’re in legal trouble or are simply a law geek, check it out.

Visit: Japanese Law Translations

Japan Legal Support Center

Legal Consultation for foreigners in Japan. If you need a lawyer while on JET bookmark this site. Actually, bookmark it no matter what. You never know.

Visit: Legal Help for Foreigners in Japan

Support for Various Groups


If you need help or support for certain issues on JET, these sites and organizations should help you out.


Stonewall Japan is a branch of AJET that offers support for the LGBTQ community in Japan. They offer groups, events, resources, community outreach, and more!

Visit: Stonewall Japan


Figuring out what you can and can’t eat as a vegetarian in Japan is a challenge. Thankfully this extensive guide distinguishes which Japanese dishes are vegetarian. There’s even a nice restaurant guide at the bottom.

Visit: The Neverending Voyage


“Is it Vegan?” offers solutions, recipes, and guides to help vegans find and make food while on JET.

Visit: Is it Vegan?

Japan Vegan gives survival tips and, most importantly, vegan friendly restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Visit: Japan Vegan

People with Celiac Disease

Avoiding gluten is a serious matter for those with celiac. Thankfully, Gluten Free in Japan brings relief and suggestions for navigating the Japanese culinary landscape with gluten-avoidance in mind.

Visit: Gluten Free in Japan

More JET Program Survival Resources?


Photo by m-louis

JET life outside of school can be a challenge, sometimes more so than the ALT job itself. Working out what to do and how to do it takes years. Hopefully these resources help a little and put you on a path of figuring out life in Japan.

If you have any suggestions for resources I may have missed, leave them in the comments below.

Get More JET Program Advice

This is only one article in our larger Tofugu JET Program Guide. It’s your experienced JET friend with the best knowledge and advice. Get help applying to JET, passing the interview, teaching, speeching, and more. The guide covers the JET experience from start to finish. It’s written by JET alumni and constantly updated.

Whether you’re applying for JET or already there, your new sempai will help you out.

Read: The Tofugu JET Program Guide

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Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum

Ramen. Although originally a Chinese import, it’s now a huge obsession in Japan and an icon of Japanese cuisine around the world. Part of the excitement is that so many different kinds and styles have developed. People wait in long lines at renowned shops and travel a long way to experience regional variations.

Now, as much as I’d love to travel to Kyushu just to eat their ramen, I didn’t have to. I just had to go to Yokohama. And at the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, I not only got my soup, but a cool place to eat it in.


The museum spells raumen with a “u” in its name for a retro feel. But the rest of this article is going to render it properly. The museum says it chose its Showa-era theme because 1958 was the birthdate of instant ramen. This is a bit odd, because this is a place where you will find no trace of instant noodles.

The entrance floor may seem a bit unpromising. Some photos of ramen from different places and an OK gift shop of ramen-related merchandise greet you as you enter. Never fear! Head downstairs and you’ll find what you came for: a two-level reproduction of a 1950s shopping street bathed in an eternal twilight.


Wander around the upper level and you’ll find various charming fake storefronts including a post office, a soba restaurant, and a pawnshop.


You’ll also find one shop that’s actually in business where you can buy retro candies and toys.


Okay, okay. You’re hungry. So go downstairs. But be ready to strategize, because there are a lot of choices.


Of course you picked up the brochure (available in English) that tells you what all the shops are and what they offer. Apparently some of them switch out once in a while. But when I was there, there were nine choices. Among them were what was claimed to be the most famous miso ramen in Japan (from Hokkaido) and one made from the recipe of a shop that was swept away in the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.


The brochure is serious business. It tells you what the broth and noodles are like at each shop. It details how thick the noodles are on a five-point scale and whether they are straight, curly, or wrinkled. It describes how rich the soup is on another five-point scale (“Rich” in ramen lingo seems to mean “fatty,” with the richest soups turning to a solid gelatinized mass if you take the leftovers home and put them in the fridge).

Or you could just pick the shop with the coolest storefront.


If you are indecisive, there’s good news. Some of the shops offer mini-ramen. So you might have room for a bowl at more than one. Also, you may want to decide whether or not to have the authentic experience of waiting in a long line. My friend and I couldn’t figure out what to do and ended up just picking a shop without a line.


The shops use the old fashioned system where you buy a ticket from a machine (seen to the right in the photo above). The machines have different buttons for different choices. The lady was very helpful, if you get confused. And “mini” is the same in English and Japanese, if you need to ask.


This shop served ramen from a shop in Kyushu that has been in business since the 1950s. It was decorated with the mascot Kumamon (who was not around in the 1950s). I swear I didn’t see that when we made our choice. So I suppose I was destined to pick the shop with the cute animal mascot.


But enough with the decor. How was the soup, you say? To be honest, I kind of wished I’d paid more attention to the helpful brochure, because the straight thin noodles turned out to be almost exactly like spaghetti. I grew up eating Italian-American food, and that was not what I had come halfway around the planet to eat. But I can’t blame them for my mistake. The broth and the crunchy garlic sprinkled on top were great, and the atmosphere couldn’t be beat.

There are lots of other things to do in Yokohama, such as the famous Yokohama Chinatown and the Cup Noodle Museum (different than the amazing instant ramen museum Koichi visited, but same company). Both of these choices are suitable if you somehow manage not to eat enough food at the Ramen Museum, not to mention non-noodle related attractions. You might want to plan better than I did and spend the whole day.

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum Rating

  • Uniqueness: 7/10 – Though the website claims the museum to be the first food theme park, there are now lots of similar places in Japan for different foods, and I’ve seen others that are also cute old-time reproductions of street stalls and such. This one is a much bigger production than the others I know of though, so it still gets a high score.
  • Access: 7/10 – Pretty easy to get to from Tokyo via various trains at various speeds and price points.
  • Nostalgia: 9/10 – Even if you weren’t alive in 1950s Japan, the old Coke machine and movie posters have a familiar vibe.
  • Deliciousness: 7/10 – It was definitely good, but to be honest ramen isn’t my favorite Japanese food and I probably didn’t make the wisest choice. Your mileage will probably vary.
  • Overall: 8/10 – Definitely worth a trip if you like ramen and if, like me, you are a sucker for the Showa era and for indoor historic reproductions of Japanese street scenes.


Rating: 8/10

Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum Access

If you’re heading straight to the museum when you get into Yokohama, the museum’s website says to transfer at the JR Shin-Yokohama station to the local Yokohama subway. But that gets you literally only two blocks closer to the museum. Not worth the bother. It’s perfectly walkable from the JR station. Take the west exit, go straight out the pedestrian bridge. Then go to your right and down to the street. The maps posted on the street have English on them to guide you the rest of the way.


“Interleaving” To Memorize More Japanese

Chances are, you are using some kind of flashcard system to study Japanese. I don’t know what you use personally, but it doesn’t matter that much. As long as it’s a spaced repetition system (like Anki or Memrise), it’s A-okay in my book.

But, how are you organizing your cards? Are you separating them out into categories, or do you throw them all into one big pile? In this video, I talk about why the latter is a much more effective strategy if you want to make faster and “realer” progress in your Japanese language abilities.

Usually, I think, people try to learn different types of things separately. But this is no good. In Japanese, this could be radicals, kanji, and vocabulary all in separate decks. You will have your “radicals deck” and you will study all the radicals at once. Then you’ll move on to your “kanji deck” and study all the kanji you’ve collected at once. Or if we want to go even more micro, you might study “Japanese greetings” all together but separately. Or “Japanese verbs” all together but separately.

Although this is a nice and organized way to study your Japanese, it’s much better to take all these radicals, kanji, vocabulary, greetings, verbs, adjectives, etc., and mix them together in a single deck. This way you may see a kanji radical come up and then a kanji right after and then an adjective right after that. When you study similar (but different) things together, this is called interleaving, and it’s so much better for your learning progress. To read more about interleaving, Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, goes into more detail.

Interleaving Japanese


The main items that you will interleave in Japanese are probably going to be your kanji and vocabulary. Depending on how you’re learning Japanese, radicals may be included in there as well (in fact, I highly recommend it!). Maybe you’ll add Japanese sentences in there. Other than that, there’s not much else in Japanese to study via flashcards. These all fit the “different but similar” requirement that we set earlier. You’ll notice there’s no mathematical equations in our Japanese deck. There’s also no English vocabulary words that you’re trying to learn. Just Japanese language related items.

This is important. You want items that have the possibility to be connected with each other. A kanji might come up. Say it’s the kanji 義. Then later on the vocabulary 正義 appears. Oh look at that! It contains the kanji we reviewed earlier. That’s great. It hasn’t been that long, so you can easily make that connection, and your Japanese gets stronger as a whole. The vocabulary word 正義 is stronger, and the kanji 義 is stronger. Your brain makes more connections between memories and it’s easier to recall them both the next time they come up. Because of these connections, you are moving those items towards a “fluency” where you can recall and understand them without having to think, like you would with words in your native language.


There’s another reason why interleaving is important. It prevents you from going into a learner’s version of “highway hypnosis.” This is a term that normally refers to a sort of hypnotic state people get into when driving. This mostly happens on long, straight stretches of road. Your brain turns off, and suddenly you’re fifty miles down the road and you don’t remember how you got here. When you study the same type of item in Japanese, it’s much easier to go into a similar state. You answer questions without really thinking about it. When you are answering questions in this state, you aren’t improving your memory for those items. Not nearly as much. It feels easier, but you don’t want studying to feel easy (usually that means you’re not learning as much). By having to switch from sentence to kanji to vocabulary to radical and then back again, you are forcing your brain to switch gears. This keeps your brain more active and you end up learning more.

Beyond flashcards, you can take interleaving a step further. If you are already interleaving your flashcard study, why not interleave your study methods? For example, you should spend five minutes studying with flashcards. Then when those five minutes are up you open up your textbook and continue to work on your grammar lesson. After another five minutes try doing some Japanese reading. With enough study, you’ll make connections between these different ways of learning, but only if you interleave them in this manner. Words you studied in your flashcards may come up in your reading practice. Or, you may come across some grammar in your reading practice that you happen to be learning in your textbook. Although these connections feel like random coincidences, as long as you’re doing study that’s within your level, you will run into way more connections like this than you’d expect. They’re random… but not all that random. Of course, you have to do plenty of study for this to work. That being said, if you’re not studying that much you probably aren’t making much progress, interleaving or not.

Memorize More Japanese This Month


I’d like to end this article by mentioning something I often have to explain to people who are just beginning WaniKani (our radicals/kanji/vocabulary learning website). In WaniKani, many people don’t like how radicals, kanji and vocabulary get mixed together into a single review pile. But, if you read this article you’ll know exactly why we do it that way. Your reviews become slightly harder, but you end up learning so much more. Plus, it’s ordered and timed so that opportunity for connected items to come up is very, very high. If you learn a new word, you’re for sure going to see the kanji that’s in it in your reviews too. It’s ordering is designed to create as many situations like this as possible. Have you noticed that when you use WaniKani? I bet you will now.

Now I ask you: what can you interleave in your Japanese studies? Try changing your learning methods for the next month and see how much more you’re able to learn. You’ll probably notice an uptick in focus as well, but that’s a whole other topic. Because interleaving is all about tiny, constant progress, you’ll need to make sure that you study a little bit every day, not for five hours once a week (this is no good no matter what your method). Tell me a month later how it goes. Good luck!



We’re Giving Away Genki I, Genki II, and Both Workbooks

Hey there, Japanese learners (or want-to-be Japanese learners). We’re giving away a complete set Genki Japanese textbooks. They’re one of our favorites for Japanese learners!

  • Genki I: An Integrated Course In Elementary Japanese
  • Genki II: An Integrated Course In Elementary Japanese
  • The workbook for both Genki Textbooks.

These Japanese textbooks will get you all the way to the intermediate level of Japanese. They cover grammar, vocabulary, kanji, and even include lessons on Japanese culture and society. They’re just high quality textbooks. Teachers love them. The internet loves them. Students love them. If you’re in the market for a physical textbook, these are the top choice.

And, we’re giving away the whole set. These should keep one very happy winner happy for quite a long time. Textbooks are expensive, too. When you put them all together they hold a $150 value. Much more in certain other parts of the world. Education isn’t cheap, I guess.

Of course, if you win them they’re free for you.

To enter the contest, please visit our Genki contest page.

Good luck! I have a good feeling about you…


The Language Hack Where You Learn 1,000+ Japanese Words This Week

What if I told you that you could learn 1,000+ Japanese words in a week or two? Would you say I’m crazy? Would you say I’ve gone to the dark side? I’d say those things too. But, you really can use this simple Japanese language hack to learn a cool thousand-ish Japanese words in a very short amount of time. I tell you how in this video:

To take advantage of this Japanese language hack, you’ll need to learn katakana. That’s a must. After that, it’s all a matter of time. Probably not that much time at all, considering what you get out of it. Here’s how it works:

Gairaigo and Wasei-Eigo

Admittedly, it would be great if you could learn a thousand originally Japanese words in such a short amount of time. But, gairaigo and wasei-eigo are important and are useful, so it’s not like you’re wasting your time. You’ll have to learn most of these eventually as they are used in the Japanese language. Because they are (usually) English words that have been “Japanese-ified” you can learn them quickly. Many of these words are very close to the original English word, meaning that you’ll be able to recognize them, learn them, and then use them with very little effort. A few examples:

キー (ki-): Key

アルコール (aruko-ru): Alcohol

バイク (baiku): motorcycle

ベビーカー (bebi-ka-): stroller (“baby car”)

カンニング (kanningu): cheating (“cunning”)

パンク (panku): Flat Tire (punc-ture)

レストラン (resutoran): Restaurant

ハッカー (hakka-): Hacker

I tried to include quite a few words that don’t sound like the original English. Even when words are like this, you can still recognize and learn them quickly. For example, パンク (panku) is just short for “(punc)ture” which refers to a flat tire. That’s not a difficult jump to make. カンニング is just “cunning,” and cunning people cheat. A ベビーカー is a “baby car.” A baby car is clearly a stroller. But, many words are pretty close to the original. A キー is a key, アルコール is alcohol, to name a couple.

Learning something that you pretty much already know is way easier than learning something that is abstract (like most of the Japanese language, when you’re starting out). We’re taking advantage of that fact, which will allow you to learn an insane number of Japanese vocabulary words (that aren’t originally Japanese at all). This is a Japanese language hack after all. So you can’t have your mochi and eat it too.

Learning These Words

Japanese Language Hack to learn Japanese vocabulary

It’s up to you for how you want to learn these. You’re probably going to want to create flashcards for yourself. Or, maybe some of you will just read the words and learn most of them like that. It’s not that difficult. Most likely, you’ll be able to find already made “katakana words” decks in Anki or Memrise (or whatever SRS you use). Less work for you.

If you do want to create your own decks and choose your own words, a search for gairaigo in Google will give you a lot of options. Also look for Wasei-Eigo, or loan words in Japanese. Whatever you search for, you’re going to find more than you need.

When you’re not sure whether or not a word is useful, search the word in Google and see how many results come up. If it’s a lot of results, then it’s probably a pretty common and useful word. If there aren’t as many results, maybe it’s not so common.

Give yourself a challenge to see how many of these words you can learn to recognize in a week. Once you can recognize them, you can start working on being able to recall them (which is harder). Recognition is always going to to be easier though it’s good to eventually be able to do both.

Good luck and enjoy all your new vocabulary!


Want More Japanese Language Hacks like these? Be sure to join our mailing list where we send out tips for Japanese learning. Best part? You get emails tailored to your level.


Tsukemono! The Wonderful World of Japanese Pickles

When we think of pickles in the US, it’s mostly the spear along with our sandwich or the slices on a burger. When I was growing up we had two types, sweet and sour. And maybe there were some pickled beets in the fridge that I refused to eat. Little did I know the riches I was missing elsewhere in the world.

In Japan, they’ll pickle anything that’s not moving. All kinds of things are pickled in different ways, creating healthy side dishes that add variety to traditional meals based on rice.

If you’ve never been to Japan, you may have seen a couple of these in restaurants (That pickled ginger with your sushi is one of them). But when you get there, you’ll find all kinds of mysterious things on little dishes with your fancy dinner and tucked in your convenience store bento. Come along with Tofugu on a journey through the wonderful world of Japanese pickles and find out what all those amazing little tidbits are about.

Many Ways to Get In A Pickle


Photo by Tokyo Times

Tsukemono 漬物 is the Japanese word for pickles, derived from tsuke “soaked” and mono “things.” You’ll see that most of the Japanese names for different types end in -zuke, which is the same word as tsuke when it undergoes rendaku in the second part of a compound word.

But “soaked” is far from the only way that pickles are made. Yes, some are made in liquids like vinegar, but other methods will probably surprise you.

Shio-zuke – salt pickles

The original and simplest, there are a couple of different ways of making salt pickles.

In one method, the vegetables are sprinkled with salt – although the word “sprinkled” may be misleading given how much salt is used – and put in a container. They’re covered with a weight or lid that presses down on them, which makes sure the salt penetrates. (Nowadays you can buy plastic containers that come with a pickle press). The salt makes the water content of the vegetables seep out by osmosis, so the container needs regular attention to drain the liquid.

Removing the water from the vegetable concentrates the flavor, and with less water, the vegetables are less susceptible to rotting. Salt pickles can take varied length of time. There’s a version that you just leave overnight. Another one is measured in months. Pickled plums, for example, are supposed to be left in the salt for the whole rainy season. The longer the pickling time, the more intense the flavors.

In the other method, vegetables are put in salt water in an airtight container. As Kikkoman describes it, “in this environment, the enzymes in the ingredients break down the food’s components into very different and flavorful substances.” That sounds a little scary to me actually but it’s nothing compared to our next example….

Nuka-zuke – rice bran pickles

Rice bran pickles are made by laying vegetables down in a specially prepared bed of rice bran. Boiled salt water is mixed with the bran. Then, similar to sourdough bread, you add some of the bed from an old batch that contains microbes to get the lactic acid fermentation process going. It must be mixed up regularly, traditionally with your bare hands, to keep all the little microbes growing and healthy.


Photo by Max Wheeler

I’ve never had the privilege of getting close to one of these beds (although I’ve seen them displayed in shops). But The Black Moon says this is how you know when it’s ready: “After a week or so the pickling medium should have a heady aroma and look like damp sand.”

Some rice bran pickling beds have been passed down for generations. It’s an astonishing thought in a century where everything in the supermarket has an expiration date printed on it. Like salt pickles, vegetables can be left in briefly or for a long time, up to several months, with different flavor results.

Kasu-zuke – sake lees pickle

Sake lees is the solids left over after sake, which is made from rice, is filtered. Like rice bran, instead of being discarded, people figured out how to use it to make pickles. Also cured for a variety of lengths of time from a few days to several years, they may actually be slightly alcoholic. Kampai!

Koji-zuke – koji pickles

You probably have never heard of koji, but Japanese food wouldn’t exist without it. It’s a microbe (let’s not call it mold, that sounds so unappetizing!). This little one-celled friend is responsible for soy sauce, miso, and sake, and it’s even been proposed that it should be called Japan’s National Fungus. Koji is mixed with rice to start the fermentation process that results in those fundamental products. And this koji mash can also be used to make pickles. These are somewhat sweet because koji produces amylase, an enzyme that produces sugar from the starch in rice.

And the rest….

Pickles are also made using soy sauce, miso, and vinegar. The most familiar to us, vinegar pickles are not usually for long-term storage. This is because Japanese vinegar is low in acid. I make one regularly with vinegar and a little soy sauce and sugar. Eaten fresh it’s more like a little side salad. Leftovers the next day are more pickle-y.

What’s that? You’d like to try the recipe yourself? No problem. Here it is.

Recipe for quick pickled cucumber:

Use pickling cucumbers or another type with the minimum of seeds – they have a better texture. If you have to use a regular American cuke, scoop all the seeds out.

  1. Slice cucumber and cut slices in quarters or halves. Finely shred some gingerroot.
  2. For a large cuke, mix 1/4 c soy sauce, 1/4 c rice vinegar and about a tablespoon of sugar. (Start there and experiment – you can go up to 2 T next time if you want it sweeter.)
  3. Mix it all up and refrigerate for an hour or two or three before serving. It’s also good but different the next day.

(Adapted from a recipe by Harumi Kurihara)

Tsukemono’s Little One-Celled Friends: Fermentation and Microbes


Some of these methods may seem weird to us. In our culture, we think food will spoil if left out of the refrigerator for five minutes. How can it possibly be a good idea to put vegetables in a tub of rice bran and leave them there, at room temperature, sometimes for months? And those pots of rice bran have been passed down for generations! And people mix them with their bare hands! Why aren’t people dying of food poisoning left and right?

Because these methods actually preserve food: They encourage good microbes, which keep out the bad microbes that make you sick.

In the US, fermentation is the new cool hipster foodie thing. There’s a kombucha bar at my Whole Foods and a stand at my local farmers market selling kimchee and sauerkraut. Maybe we’re finally starting to catch up. But Japanese cuisine always been all about the fermentation. As mentioned earlier, miso and soy sauce, both fundamental to Japanese cooking, are produced by fermentation. And aside from those quick vinegar pickles that are more like salads, most of the pickling processes involve fermentation too.

Preserving vegetables this way not only made them last longer when there was no refrigeration, some methods even made them healthier. Some types of pickles aid digestion. Rice bran pickles are high in B vitamins – a vitamin that the Japanese diet was short on when it was based mostly on white rice. Rather than throw away the B-vitamin-rich rice bran after it’s removed while making the white rice, pickling with it adds these vitamins back into the diet.

Famous Japanese Pickles


Photo by Shigemi.j

Japanese people make pickles out of almost every vegetable in so many ways that we could never list all the combinations. There are local specialties and all kinds of ingredients added for flavor. From herbs and citrus fruits to ingredients that add umami like kombu seaweed, bonito, and shiitake mushroom.


Photo by Sushicam

But there are a few pickles that you’ll see everywhere:

  • Umeboshi is the Japanese plum, salt-pickled then dried in the sun. They come in a variety of sizes and different textures. They’re colored with red shiso (an herb) and are intensely sour. You’ll see them in bento and inside onigiri rice balls (careful, because they still have the pit). They’re said to have been made for over a thousand years, and to have an antibacterial effect that keeps the other foods in your bento fresh.
  • Gari is the pickled ginger you get with sushi. It’s a simple vinegar pickle. And in case you didn’t know, you’re supposed to eat it between pieces of sushi to cleanse your palate so you can appreciate the different flavors of each kind of fish. Young ginger naturally turns pink when pickled. But the bright pink kind you’ll often see is made with artificial dye.
  • Takuan is rice-bran pickled daikon radish.  It’s usually served in half-moon slices, and makes a good vegetarian sushi roll filling. Manufactured takuan is also often dyed nowadays, to a bright yellow color. Traditionally it’s dried in the sun before being pickled, which can make a pretty awesome photo.
  • Beni shōga is ginger in little red strips. You probably seen these on top of yakisoba or takoyaki. It’s pickled in the vinegar used to make umeboshi pickled plums. So its bright red color ought to come from the red shiso leaves. Sadly, today it is also usually artificially dyed.

How to Approach a Strange Tsukemono


Photo by Ruth and Dave

The earliest pickles were vegetables preserved in salt. One legend of the origin of tsukemono places it at Kayatsu Shrine in Nagoya. The shrine is now nicknamed Tsukemono Jinja and home to a festival celebrating the occasion each August. It’s said that the local people there traditionally made offerings of salt harvested from the sea and the vegetables from the first harvest. Because the offerings spoiled quickly, someone came up with the idea to combine them together in a barrel.

The result was a fermented product, which lasted a longer time. This was considered a gift from the gods, and with good reason. Before refrigeration, and greenhouses, and flying produce all around the world from places where seasons are different, there weren’t a lot of vegetables around in the winter. Pickles were the answer. They preserved spring and summer’s bounty for the cold time of year.

Now we can buy all kinds of fresh produce at any time of year. So they’re no longer necessary for providing vitamins and fiber when they’re out of season. But Japanese cuisine developed to include them, so a traditional meal doesn’t make sense without them. In fact, just rice, soup, and pickles count as a complete traditional Japanese meal.

Japanese food is often stereotyped as having delicate, subtle flavors. That may fool you into taking a huge mouthful of pickle, which could be a shock. Think of them more like a condiment. And remember that Japanese cuisine is based around a bowl of rice. Rice is indeed a subtle (some would say bland) food, and there’s nothing like a little bit of pickle to kick it up a notch when you take a mouthful of rice.

If you watch Japanese cooking shows, you’ll often see them taste something and say “this makes me want to eat a lot of rice.” That’s tsukemono in a nutshell. Oh, and that’s supposed to be a good thing.

Aside from their flavor, don’t forget how important presentation is to Japanese food. Tsukemono in their varied colors add eye appeal as well.

Japanese Pickles Today


Photo by anjuli ayer

Pickles used to be made by hand in each household, and each tasted a little different. Your mom’s rice bran pickles really were different from everyone else’s, because the microbes on her hands were different. Now, homemade pickles are usually lighter kinds that only take an hour or a day or two to make. Most people go to the store and buy the more labor-intensive kinds.


As noted above, manufactured pickles are often made with artificial dyes. Read the ingredients on the packaged ones. You’ll find they are about as similar to traditionally made pickles as instant ramen is to a real local ramen shop. Remember that many of these pickles take days or weeks or even months to make in the old-fashioned way. So commercial ones take a lot of shortcuts.

However, you can still find traditional stores specializing in handmade pickles, which may have hundreds of kinds. You should look for them when you’re in Japan, because even if you don’t buy anything, it’s as much a true traditional Japanese sight as any temple or rock garden.

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