Tea Time

If you have ever had an English lesson at imagine* then you know that we always ask, “Would you like tea or water?” at the beginning. Of course, sometimes students don’t want something to drink at that time, and that’s OK. We hope that you don’t feel uncomfortable refusing a drink and worry that it might be rude. Please don’t worry – saying, “No thank you.” is a perfectly polite response. If you feel like challenging yourself a little, or trying something new, then you could try saying: “I’m set, thanks.” In this case, set means “OK”, and it is a polite and popular phrase that is used instead of, “No thank you.” in America.

Starting in September of last year, we have given you another reason to say, “Tea, please.” when we ask what you want. We have stopped serving bottled 伊藤園 お〜い お茶 and Midori has started preparing imported organic tea from the nearby shop Uf-fu ( ウーフ ). These teas are much fresher and tastier, and we change them every month so there is always something new to try! In September we began with Rooibos tea from South Africa. In October we had Oolong with orange from Taiwan. After that Rooibos returned, but the November version had ginger. December’s tea was a blend of Chamomile and Darjeeling and throughout January we have been serving a very fine Jasmine tea.

What will the tea be in February? That’s a secret! You will need to come and find out; I always look forward to it. Finally, remember if you just want water, we still have that too. Or you can say, “I’m set, thanks.” but I hope you will at least try the next new tea with me.

‘Story of life.’ Launch party – September 2013

Our most recent art exhibition was launched at a party on the evening of 8th September, and what a monster of a good time it was! The artist this time is a young woman from Taiwan who goes by the penname of Sieii Nidosani. She has practiced calligraphy since the age of 12, graduated from the calligraphy department of the National Taiwan University of arts in 2011, and earned her masters from The Kobe University of Design just this year.

It is no surprise then that her work draws heavily on the art of calligraphy, but what she produces is a surprisingly fresh mix of cultures and style. Most of her work is mounted backdrops like those of traditional Japanese wall scrolls, but the charcoal ink paintings themselves contain very modern characters she refers to as “monsters.” She uses brush strokes of varying pressure no doubt mastered during her long years of calligraphy training, and accents the otherwise black and white art with subtle flares of color that tie the compositions together.

Guests at our party who were bold enough could request a free portrait, and more than a dozen people did! The monsters Sieii Nidosani painted for them, like all her others, were more cute than they were scary. Perhaps the only frightening thing about them was how close they came to representing the hearts of each subject. I spoke with one student who was quite moved after she received her portrait monster. The student explained to me that while the monster looked nothing like her, every element of the art represented her character in some way, and she was amazed that the artist could do this when they had only just met!

Aside from the free portraits there was gourmet coffee available, and guests were able to enjoy all the things that have become expected at our parties: free wine and beer, delicious organic homemade baked goods for sale and sample, provided kindly made by our resident baker, Itsuki, and the international atmosphere! There was the Taiwanese artist and her Polish husband as well as guests who came from as far away as South America, and of course there were the staff members from Australia, Canada and the USA.

So whether you are one of our Yoga students, one of our English students, or you just happen to be in the area and feel like enjoying some fine art and refreshment, please stop by for our next party, scheduled for the early evening of Decemeber 8th – I hope to see you there!

Shikoku’s Rival Dance Festivals: Which is for You?

I’m writing this on a rainy day in June, but my thoughts are already of sunnier days in August. Many things come to mind, like fireworks and beaches, but today I’ll write about dancing!

Carnival, in Brazil, is the world’s largest dance festival, but did you know that the Awaodori, right here in Japan, is the second largest in the world? A few summers ago I traveled to join that festival in Tokushima. But the Awaodori is not the only dance festival on Shikoku in August! I also went to the Yosakoi festival a few hours farther south in Kochi city!

So, which would I recommend? Well, it depends on what you like…

The Awaodori is more traditional, so if you want to enjoy music, dance and costumes that have come to us from ancient times, then go to Tokushima. The Yosakoi is a modern version of the Awaodori that began around the 1950’s. The music is louder and mixes in elements of rock. The dances are faster and crazier, and the costumes are wilder and more colorful. So, if you like the excitement and originality of this newer style, go to Kouchi!

Ah, but do you want to dance, or just watch? I think that the Yosakoi is more about watching; you can stand in one place while the dance groups move past you down the street in a parade with trucks that carry their giant speakers. Not so many of the people watching were dancing. On the other hand, at the Awaodori, the people watching often join with the dancers. It’s easy to copy the slower Awaodori dancers, and as the night gets later and you have more drinks, it begins to feel like one huge and welcoming party.

As for me? I preferred the Yosakoi. The main reason is that the Awaodori was simply too crowded. Unlike the Yosakoi, the Awaodori dances happen in many parts of the city, and moving to them is difficult with so many people. It was easier for me to just relax at the Yosakoi. And although Kochi is farther than Tokushima, I thought it was more convenient. If you don’t book a hotel months in advance, then you will have no place to sleep after the Awaodori. However, I was able to reserve a hotel room in Kochi when I arrived there at 6pm!

Of course, if you can go to both, then do so! But if you can choose only one, then I hope this review will help you decide! And whatever you do, have a happy summer!

The Secret to Enjoying Autumn Leaves in Kyoto

Now that autumn has come, I am waiting excitedly for the leaves to change colors. I love going to see the autumn leaves, but I don’t love waiting in long queues or being bumped around in a sea of people. You may be surprised then, that some of my best leaf viewing experiences were in Kyoto. Many places in Kyoto are very beautiful, but they are also very famous and therefore very crowded. I can still enjoy leaf viewing in Kyoto though, because I have discovered some amazing secrets. I will share some with you, if you promise not to tell too many people…

First, I recommend Kitanotenmangu(北野天満宮), or rather, the woods around it. Until recently, no visitors were allowed inside this small forest, and it is still closed to the public for most of the year. However, for a couple of weeks in November, we can now walk along the previously hidden paths and enjoy the fall foliage. The grounds are wide, the trees are tall and old and they are even lit up at night. Many people still don’t know about this spot, so it is much less crowded than some of Kyoto’s other destinations.

Speaking of evening light displays, Koudaiji(高台寺)must be one of the most famous. When my wife and I tried to visit, we found a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. The staff said that it would take about three hours to get inside. Shocked and disappointed, we gave up and wondered where to go. That is when we noticed that Entokuin(圓徳院), directly across form Koudaiji, was open and also had a light display. It was very small, but the illumination of the leaves over its rock garden was lovely, and because there were almost no people there, it was quiet and peaceful.

There is one other reason to go to Entokuin though, and it is the greatest of my secrets. Are you ready? OK, here it is: when you buy your ticket at Entokuin, they will also give you a ticket to Koudaiji. That’s right! So after leaving, my wife and I walked past the hundreds of people waiting to buy tickets outside Koudaiji and we entered without any wait!

So if you are thinking about where to see leaves this year, let me recommend Kyoto, and these three places I have mentioned, in the order I have mentioned them. You are sure to have a wonderful and stress free time!

Alex’s first translation project

Most students who come to imagine* on Sundays know me well – we’ve had many lessons together. But during the month of May, very few of you had lessons with me. When you came, perhaps you noticed me sitting alone at a desk with many papers around me, typing busily on a computer. Or perhaps you didn’t notice, but I would like to tell you what I was doing anyway. For over a month, I was working on a translation project.

imagine* was contracted to translate the web site of a garment stand maker into English. This was my first serious translation project. It was a very interesting challenge but I came to realize that translation is very difficult for several reasons.

First of all, there are many differences between Japanese and English sentence structure. I noticed that when I changed a sentence into English, I often had to add a subject, such as “we,” our “these products,” because in Japanese, subjects are not always present.

Vocabulary was also difficult, because the topic was something that I am not familiar with in my own language. I had to learn many new English words related to the fashion industry. Luckily, Brandon knows more about that and was able to help my English sound more natural.

Finally, I realized that some things cannot be translated directly. English and Japanese are so different that sometimes we need to stop trying to match them and find things that are equal – we just say it another way. I think this idea is especially important when we speak a foreign language.

When I speak Japanese, I am not translating in my head. Therefore, even though I have been using Japanese in my daily life for many years, this experience was very new for me. I have a Japanese place in my brain, and when I talk, I try to use only that place. It helps make speech faster and more natural, and I recommend this to all students of foreign language. And for anyone who has to translate documents at work, I say: Good Luck!


The Truth about Washington and Cherry Trees (A Recommendation)

The hanami season is about to begin in Japan, and I hope you are just as excited as me. I love going to see cherry blossoms, and I would like to tell you about one of my favorite hanami spots. I first went there more than twenty years ago, which may surprise you. My father and I visited this place eight springs in a row, and I have been back a few more times since. This spot is in my home country, of course. In fact, it is in the capital of my country.

From early to mid April, thousands of cherry trees bloom across Washington DC. They are just as beautiful as the ones here in Japan. This is because they actually came from Japan exactly 100 years ago. It was a wonderful gift from the Japanese government, and many American people have enjoyed the classic Japanese tradition of hanami ever since. But speaking of Washington and cherry trees, there is a story I want to tell you. This is a story all children in my country are taught, and it is an old American tradition.

According to legend, when America’s first president, George Washington, was only six years old, he was given an axe. He was very excited, and went around his father’s farm attacking small trees and bushes. By accident, he also attacked his father’s special cherry tree. When his father noticed the damage, he was very angry, and wondered if one of his workers had done it. George realized that he would be safe if he lied, but he decided to tell his father what he had done anyway. The father was so proud of his son’s honesty that George did not get into any trouble.

Ironically, most historians agree that this story, which is supposed to teach American children the importance of telling the truth, is itself false, and never happened. And the cherry tree in this story was from England, a type which does not have beautiful flowers like those from Japan. Still, this old legend made the cherry trees in Washington DC even more significant for the American people, and it became an interesting blend of cultures.

I realize that you may not be able to go to Washington DC this year, but if you are ever planning a trip to my country’s capital, try to do it in early April. I promise that your American hanami experience will be one of the best and most unique you have ever had!

Growing Grey Waiting for Chocolates and Scores…

I would like to tell you about one habit of mine. Since coming to Japan, I have taken the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) every time it has been held. That might sound a little crazy to you, and you might be right. But actually, unlike some tests which are held often, like TOEIC, this one was offered only once a year when I first came, and recently just twice a year. On December 4th of this year, I took the JLPT for the seventh time!

How did I do? Well, thank you for asking but I’m not sure. The results for the JLPT do not come quickly like those of TOEIC or IELTS; I will have to wait until the middle of February before I know my score. I am certain that I failed though. At least I can still look forward to Valentine’s Day chocolate…

The JLPT is like the STEP Eiken in that there are different tests for different levels, and certification is on a pass or fail basis. Unfortunately, unlike the STEP Eiken, there are no “Pre” levels, so the gap between each is very wide and it can take many years to “level-up”. Although I have passed the level 2, I will probably have a lot more grey in my hair before I pass level 1!

Even though the levels and scoring resemble the STEP Eiken, and some of the questions are suited to university students (like the TOEFL), the type of questions and overall style of the JLPT are probably closest to TOEIC. There is no writing and no interview, things that make STEP Eiken, IELTS and TOEFL very difficult. Okay, to be fair, a Writing and Interview TOIEC has been offered since 2007, but I’m talking about the traditional TOEIC. And just like the original TOEIC, all you have to do is fill out multiple choice questions.

Anyway, this is something I do every year, now twice a year! I do not recommend that you torture yourself by taking TOEIC, TOEFL, STEP Eiken or the IELTS every time you can, but I do think it is good to create your own studying customs. These customs help us remember our goals and keep us motivated to move ever forward. So let’s keep studying together ? good luck!

Identity and Place

I recently returned from a trip home to visit my parents and introduce them to their grandchild. Airline troubles aside, it was very nice, thank you. And where exactly is my home, you ask? Well, that will take some explaining. I’ve been reflecting on the matter, and here is what I’ve realized.

Whenever Japanese ask me where I’m from, I’m at a bit of a loss. First there’s the bit about being American. Everyone knows the United States, expects it even, and I suppose that’s why this first part bothers me. Sure, confirming that I’m American usually brightens faces- a phenomenon quite unique to these islands. But sometimes I wish I could foil assumptions and avoid stereotypes by saying I’m from someplace else. I won’t dwell on the mixed blessings and curses of being an Americans though; we’re still far from finding my home.

Which part of the USA did I grow up in? I say the Northeast. America is pretty large, so this vague description rarely satisfies. I am reluctant, however, to volunteer the name of my state, as it leads to a lot of misconceptions. Revealing I’m from New York usually conjures images of glass and concrete canyons, rivers of yellow taxis, The Statue of Liberty (which is actually in New Jersey’s waters) Times Square and a host of other things, all metropolitan, cosmopolitan, and in my case, far from the truth. I am from New York, but not the one you might think.

You see, the above images fit New York City, emphasis on city. But above this city lies a vast and mostly rural land. New York State is nearly as large as all of Kanto and Tohoku combined. I doubt someone living in Nagano wants to be associated with a Tokyoite, and the same goes for me. My hometown is more than 200 kilometers north of New York City, but it might as well be a world apart.

So what city do I live in? Well, I don’t. The nearest Department store or train station is 45 minutes by car. The nearest bus stop or supermarket: 30 minutes. The nearest shop or traffic light is 15 minutes away. I can’t even see my next-door neighbor. My father pays property taxes to Stephentown. But, the post address is East Nassau. The school district is New Lebanon. So which is my hometown? I’m not sure.

Aikido: Every Pacifist’s Martial Art

In modern times, all martial arts claim to be methods of self-defense rather than violence. But how many martial arts can actually claim to have no offensive moves? There is at least one, and I began studying it with a Japanese teacher at the age of 13. It is called Aikido and its peaceful nature was one of the many reasons why I chose this art.

Aikido is a relatively recent addition to the world of martial arts. It was developed in the early 20th century in the Kansai region by Ueshiba Morihei. Ueshiba had trained in a variety of fighting arts since childhood and their influences are clear. However, unlike the other arts Ueshiba had mastered, his creation lacked the ability to initiate an attack.

Aikido is purely defensive, relying on the momentum of an attack. The more forceful the attack, the easier it is to redirect and control its energy through circular motions and clever body mechanics. The moves usually end in a throw or pin, but these are done so as not to hurt the attacker. Thus, Aikido is often referred to as the “Pacifist’s Martial Art.”

The techniques do not require physical strength or favor large statures, so Aikido is well suited to women and children. Because of this, I think Aikido could also be called, “Everyone’s Martial Art.” It is an art of equality that has become popular all over the world, and classes are often filled with interesting mixes of people.

The pacifist’s mindset is central to Aikido, which translates to “the way of harmonious energy.” Indeed, the teachings come paired with a highly developed philosophy. One learns to apply the principles used in training to their daily life, redirecting and neutralizing negative energy in personal and professional relationships.

There are no belt colors in Aikido. There are no competitions either. Aikido has no winners or losers. Defeating an opponent is not the way to victory. Avoiding and resolving conflicts before they take negative effect equals true victory in Aikido. If you are looking for personal victory, please consider trying this beautiful Japanese art.

A secluded beach, the finest sake and folk songs in Tanabe

Are you planning to go to the beach this summer? If so, are you thinking about going to Shirahama in Wakayama? Wait! I have a suggestion. Instead of Shirahama, why not go to Ogigahama? It’s very close to Shirahama, in the neighboring city of Tanabe. It’s not nearly as big as Shirahama, but only the local people know about it, so it’s not crowded at all! You can have all the space you like and of course it is free to enter!

Is there anything else to do in Tanabe city? Absolutely! You can buy the same sort of souvenirs sold at Shirahama, such as products made with Wakayama’s famous ume and mikan. You can go hiking at Hiki-Iwa, an area of rocky hills near the city center that offer spectacular views of the surrounding ocean and mountains. Or, you can visit one of the many beautiful temples; Japan’s famous warrior monk Benkei spent time at one of them, and the founder of Aikido trained at another. There are also countless hot springs around the city, even on the banks of a river. If you are staying the night, there are many cheap inns and hotels.

There is one more important reason to visit Tanabe city, and that is eating at Kanteki. Kanteki is a small tavern a few minutes walk from the station that serves the freshest fish and the finest sake, as well as interesting versions of familiar meals such as niku jagga with deer meat instead of beef. The staff are always friendly and the local fisherman and farmers who eat there will persuade you to join them in singing local folk songs before the night is over. Of all the places I have eaten in Japan, I can say Kanteki was the best!