Posts Tagged ‘japanese’

McGaijin Software interview – Learn Hiragana Now!

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

McGaijin Software have just released their first iOS app “Learn Hiragana Now!” to help you learn the Japanese hiragana alphabet. Here is my interview with them.

1. Tell us about your new iOS app.

‘Learn Hiragana Now!’ is my little app to help people to read and write hiragana (one of the Japanese syllabaries) in as fast a time as possible.

learn hiragana now

2. How did you get the idea for Learn Hiragana Now?

My husband and I love Japan, and while we both spoke enough Japanese to get around, on our first trip we soon realised that being able to read would be a massive benefit. When we got back home we made an effort to learn hiragana, but if you don’t use what you learn regularly it quickly disappears from your memory. We made up some mnemonics (memory aids) to assist learning, and found that the learning became more permanent. When we both bought iPod Touches we got the idea for the app. It is the perfect platform – it’s portable so you can learn anywhere, and the touch interface makes it very easy to use.

3. What challenges did you face with creating it?

Everything! I bought a second-hand Mac laptop to develop it on, and I’d never used a Mac before so it was a steep learning curve. I’d also never done any programming!

4. What tools did you use?

  • PhoneGap to compile the application (a package to allow you to use HTML & JavaScript within iPhone apps).
  • PaintShop Pro for the images.
  • CoffeeCup HTML editor to create the bones of the app.

5. What testing did you do for the app?

Everything was tested by hand. As the app was mainly HTML it was easy to test in a normal web browser. Once it was compiled on an actual iPod Touch I just made sure that every link went to the correct place – it was more time consuming than I thought, so hopefully there are no bugs!

6. How did you become interested in programming?

Creating this app was my first programming experience.

7. Will you be porting this app to other platforms?

PhoneGap allows compilation to Android, and Blackberry if I remember correctly. I’ve got an Android phone but to be honest I’ve not had chance to sit down and look at this properly – real life tends to get in the way of things!

8. What would you like to see changed or added to the iPhone SDK?

As a complete beginner when it comes to programming (and Macs!) I would love to see a beyond-simple set of video tutorials that you can use to get up and running, and teach programming basics.

9. What next for McGaijin Software?

I’m working on ‘Learn Katakana Now!’ – a similar app with a new set of mnemonics to learn katakana. Again, this is taking longer than I originally thought, but it will get there eventually.

10. Are there any other iOS apps you’d recommend for learning Japanese?

Kana LS – it’s a perfect companion for Learn Hiragana Now. It allows you to practise actually writing the kana on the screen with your finger, great for revision!
Human Japanese – a great introduction to the Japanese language, filled with tons of interesting facts.

Learn Hiragana Now! is available on the App Store now.


You can get the latest information about them McGaijin Software on the McGaijin Software website.

Sending a letter back home from Japan

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

If you are in Japan on holiday you may well want to send a letter or postcard back home. Here are some simple tips to help you out if you aren’t sure how to do it.

japanese red post box

Addressing the letter

Address your letter as you normally would in the language of the country you are sending it to. I’d suggest writing the country name in block capitals as joined up hand writing isn’t usually taught in Japanese schools. Next to the country name write the country name (again) but this time in Japanese.

letter to england from japan stamps

The best list of Japanese country names I’ve found so far is the list at The countries are listed by ISO codes, and although you may not be an ISO code expert, I’m betting you’ll recognise the code for your own country.

Some of them are much easier to write than others! So don’t worry if you can’t write the Japanese version, as long as you have the country name in block capitals they will probably work out where to send it at the post office.

Finding a post office

You should find post offices in most towns and cities. Look for the symbol that looks like a ‘T’ with an extra line on the top.

outside of japanese post office

You can ask for the post office by saying:

‘yu-bin-kyo-ku wa’? (ゆうびんきょく は)


‘yu-bin-kyo-ku wa doko des ka’? (ゆうびんきょく は どこ です か)

What to do in the post office have got a post office lesson on their website. You can easily get the job done using much less Japanese then they are teaching you. But it is worth looking at their lesson, because it has audio files for some of the words you might need.

Go up to a counter and say:

[country name] o-ne-gai-shimass. ([country name] おねがいします)

e.g. to send a letter to the UK you might say:

igi-risu o-ne-gai-shimass. (イギリス おねがいします)

Then hand them you letter or card. You’d usually hand it to them using two hands, and with the address rotated correctly so they can read it. If they haven’t quite got what you said you could point to the country name and they should know what you want.

They’ll then weigh the letter and tell you the price. The price should also be on the till so you can just read the price if you don’t understand Japanese numbers.

Pay them the money and get your change. Like in most shops and restaurants you don’t hand the staff member the money directly. You would put it in a tray, or on the counter for them to pick up. They will however usually give you the change back into your hand with the receipt.

Then they will get the stamps and the airmail sticker and put them onto the envelope. If there is a choice of different stamps they might ask you to choose one. You could just point at which one you want.

To finish off they’ll either take the letter away and say “ari-ga-tou gozai-mashita”, or hand it to you for you to post yourself.

You can thank them by saying “ari-ga-tou gozai-mass” (ありがとうございます) if you want to be extra polite.

Free Japanese OCR translation

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

If you have a Japanese document on paper there are plenty of services that will translate it for a price, but it is also possible to get a machine translation done for free. It might not give you a great translation, but it might be good enough for you to at least work out what the document is.

There are two stages to translating a document in Japanese.

  1. Converting an image (i.e. a scan of the document) into Japanese computer text.
  2. Translating that Japanese text into English.

The WeOCR Project will allow you to convert your scan into Japanese text (Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana).

A high quality scan will work best, but I’ve had ok results as well with an image taken using a digital camera.

Go to their Japanese character recognition page to get your scanned image converted into Japanese text.

japanese ocr free

Then copy the text (highlight it and then Ctrl-C on Windows), and paste it (Ctrl-V) into Google’s Japanese to English translator.

google japanese to english translation

And you have now done your free Japanese OCR translation!

Improving the quality of the results

As you have the raw Japanese text (from the OCR step) it it possible for you to manually fix any OCR errors if the text is important enough for you to spend the time doing so.

If any of the kana are wrong you can simple copy the correct ones over using Wikipedia’s Hiragana table, or their Katakana table.

If you install the Japanese IME you’ll easily be able to type in the kana characters, and if you enable the IME pad (choose the Japanese keyboard, right click the icon with the red circle, and click ‘Additional icons in the taskbar’), you’ll be able to have a go at drawing the kana or Kanji – if you are close enough it should recognise the symbol.

ime pad

If you don’t find the Kanji drawing recognition is working, you can use an online tool to select the correct Kanji by clicking on which radicals you see in it.

Denshi Jisho works for me, or if you have an iPhone, the latest version of Kotoba has Kanji radical search built in.

kanji radical search

You’ll need to know a bit about how Kanji are constructed to use these tools. Once you’ve figured it out you can look up the Kanji relatively quickly.

When you’ve corrected the Japanese text, you can feed it back into Google Translate and hopefully you’ll get a better translation than before.

How to be a vegetarian in Japan

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Out of all the places you can visit in the world, one of the hardest for being vegetarian must be Japan. In Japan you will find it hard to find restaurants where you can get vegetarian food, and you will find your options for vegetarian food in supermarkets more limited then they will be in most other countries.

thali spice restaurant takamatsu chana masala

The Japanese vegetarian problem

The problem for vegetarians in Japan is caused largely by the Japanese love of fish. You will find fish, fish extracts, fish sauce (dashi), or other fish derivatives in all kinds of food. Most Japanese food will contain some fish, even if it does not look like a fish dish. Many restaurants serving foreign food will sneak fish into their food as well to make the taste more appealing to the Japanese.

A fishy tale

To illustrate how difficult it can be to avoid fish listen to this. I went to Tokyo and found a review of a vegetarian restaurant that sounded good on a vegi website. It was a restaurant serving tofu – a popular choice for vegis! On getting to the restaurant my friend and I thought we’d double check what was in the food. We asked in Japanese and it turned out that they put fish dashi (fish sauce) in ALL their tofu dishes :( That’s right, even a tofu restaurant which had been recommended by a well know vegetarian website turned out not to be vegetarian.

Ground up beef

There are other difficulties. The Japanese sometimes put ground up meat into their food. For example you may find that a tomato pasta dish which looks perfectly innocent actually contains ground up beef inside it. You won’t find it on the menu. You’ll only find out if you can talk to the waiting staff in Japanese.

Even bread isn’t safe. Some wholemeal breads in Japan contain Gelatin!


Another difficulty is caused by the unwillingness of Japanese restaurants to do custom orders. In most other countries, if you ask for your food to be prepared without a certain ingredient (something you have to a lot as a vegetarian) the restaurant will agree to do it.

And why shouldn’t they. If there is a pasta with bacon on the menu it is pretty easy to prepare it without the bacon isn’t it? Well not always to the Japanese. You’ll find that if you ask for a modification to be made to a dish on the menu, they will think for a moment and then say ‘muzukashii’. This is the Japanese word for ‘difficult’. This is their way of saying they can’t do it.

I don’t understand why it is so difficult not to place one of the ingredients onto a dish which has to be prepared from scratch, but if you are in Japan you have to get used to it.

That is not to say that it can’t be done. I’ve been in many restaurants that were happy – or at least willing to make changes to items on the menu. You just have to ask them politely and then explain very carefully.

So what can you eat as a vegetarian in Japan?

Your range of vegetarian options in Japan will depend on where you are in the country, how much research you have done, and whether you can communicate in Japanese.

If you don’t speak Japanese then you will be safest eating in foreign restaurants. I found that real Indian restaurants offered the best vegetarian food throughout Japan. Note that I’m talking about foreign Indian restaurants such as Nepali Indian restaurants and not the Japanese style Curry restaurants where you are unlikely to find any options.

Indian – the world’s safest vegetarian food

India is the world’s most vegetarian friendly country and this becomes obvious when you go to a real Indian restaurant. You will usually find multiple vegetarian options in an Indian restaurant. You will also find that the staff in these restaurants that are from India will often speak English. This is a double bonus for the hungry vegetarian in Japan. If the chefs are Indian then it is unlikely that any fish sauce or flakes will be put into your food.

Italian – an often safe option

After Indian restaurants the next best option is the Italian restaurant. You will usually be able to find a margarita pizza, or a tomato pasta in the menu. Sometimes you might even find a mushroom pasta. If there is no margarita pizza then you might be able to get them to remove the meat from a bacon or ham pizza.

Something a bit more authentic

Of course if you come to Japan it is nice to try something more authentic than Indian and Italian. If you want to do this however you’ll need to speak enough Japanese to explain your dietary requirements, ask what food is suitable, discuss modifications to the items on the menu, and you’ll need to understand what your waiter is saying! Or if you have a Japanese friend bring them along.

If you handle the Japanese language then you may be able to get them to make you a vegetarian okonomiyaki (a sort of savoury pancake), or a vegetarian yakisoba (fried noodles). These dishes aren’t usually vegetarian, pretty much always containing some fish dashi and fish flakes, but some restaurants may be willing to make them vegi for you. You can ask them to leave out the fish flakes, and put soy sauce in the dish instead of fish dashi – if they have soy sauce, sometimes they don’t.

Another good option is yudame or zaru udon. These types of udon are boiled in water and will be served plain. You’ll probably get a fish dipping sauce with them, but can just leave it. You can add soy sauce, tofu, and spring onions to your udon to make them taste good.

The lunch ‘set’ menu

‘Set’ lunches are very popular in Japan. Unfortunately if you are vegetarian you won’t like them! At lunch many restaurants do these set menus which offer a very limited set of choices. If you do manage to find a restaurant that does a vegetarian option, you can bet that it won’t be there on the set lunch menu. And when it comes to set lunches the Japanese are even less willing to make modifications to the food than at dinner time.

Whereas Italian restaurants can be a good choice for dinner, they may well have nothing to offer you at lunch. The one place that might have a vegetarian option for lunch will be Indian restaurants.

Katakana and Kanji

If you want to stay vegetarian you will find it very useful to learn the Japanese katakana alphabet, and selected food kanji.

Katakana is a phonetic alphabet. Each ‘letter’ makes a sound. The good thing about katakana is that it is used for imported foreign words – usually English words. That means if you can read the katakana you may be able to understand the words without having to know any Japanese vocabulary.

If an English menu isn’t available at a foreign food restaurant such as an Italian or Indian you will probably find that much of the menu is written in katakana.

Katakana isn’t difficult to learn and you should be able to learn it in a few weeks if you put your mind to it. Below is an example menu snippet, mostly written in katakana, with a few kanji thrown in too.

katakana italian menu japan

Learning selected food kanji will also help you out, both with understanding menus, and knowing which food in the supermarket or convenience store is vegi safe.

The two main ‘danger’ kanji to avoid are the ones for meat 肉, fish 魚, and a bug/insect 虫.

You will find that many types of meat, fish, and seafood words in Japanese contain these kanji.

Here are some examples of non-vegetarian foods.

牛肉 – Beef. Did you spot the meat kanji?
豚肉 – Pork.
羊 – Lamb / sheep.
鶏 / とり – Chicken / bird. Here bird is written in the hiragana phonetic alphabet rather than kanji.
蝦 – Shrimp or prawn. Look very carefully at the left half of the kanji. You should be able to spot the kanji for bug / insect (虫) in there.
海老 – Shrimp or prawn. The first kanji means ‘the sea’.

Food ordering going wrong in Japan

Here are some examples of what could go wrong when you order your food in Japan. I include them so you see just how easy it if for Japanese waiting staff to get your vegetarian order wrong.

No meat please – You get given a meal with fish. Japanese people do not usually see fish as being a type of meat.

No meat or fish please – You get seafood in your dish. Such as prawns, prawn flavouring, fish sauce, fish flakes. In Japan seafood is often seen as being different to meat or fish. Even if you say no fish they might still think that fish sauce or fish flakes are fine.

No meat, fish, or seafood – You get a dish with bacon on it! Yes I have seen this happen. How could the Japanese possibly think that bacon is not a type of meat. My theory is that it is because bacon is written as バーコン which does not contain the meat kanji. Therefore some Japanese people don’t think of meat when they think of bacon.

Research your restaurants

If you don’t do research in advance you will just have to take your chance wherever you are. If you are lucky you’ll find Italian or Indian. If you are in Japan for a long time then this will get boring. Therefore you should do research into vegetarian restaurants before you go.

Find vegetarian places that sound good, and make sure you know where the restaurant is on the map. Also make sure you know the opening days and hours, as restaurants in Japan can sometime be closed at unexpected times. The one place to research your restaurants is on Happy Cow. There you’ll find vegetarian restaurants (or at least restaurants with a few vegi options) in all Japan’s big cities. Many smaller cities will have a few vegi friendly restaurants as well.

If you should happen to be going to Takamatsu on Shikoku Island, then I have a guide to Takamatsu’s vegetarian restaurants. You’ll also find a Japan survival guide on this blog.

Japanese survival phrases and Japan survival information

Monday, February 1st, 2010

If you live in a Western country such as Britain, America or elsewhere in Europe then Japan will seem a very alien country when you first arrive. They language, writing, alphabets, foods and customs are so different to ours that Japan can be a big culture shock to the system.

Japanese survival phrases

If you look on the internet or in a book shop there are lots of guides on Japanese survival phrases. However it is hard to find a guide with just the right words that you need to get you started in Japan – or even worse there are guides that give you direct translations without proper context of when to use or who you can use these phrases with.

Japan is a country of complex etiquette so a simple translation of words without understanding the context may not get you the results you need. For example many guides will tell you ‘Good Morning’ is ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ or that ‘Thank You’ is ‘arigato’. Are these translations good enough? No they’re not – you need more context to know if they are suitable!

I’m only going to explain a small number of phrases – these are ones you are very likely to use – they won’t help you to have a conversation but they may make you visit to Japan easier.

Whatever country you are in you should always know how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Very important for getting you out of trouble and so that you don’t seem rude!

If you only learn five Japanese phrases make it these ones.

1. Arigato gozaimasu

Pronounced ‘ari-ga-toe goh-zai-mass’, this means ‘thank you very much’. It is what you would say if you want to be polite to the waiter when they bring you your food, or to the shop assistant when you have completed your purchase transaction. Normally you would do a small bow or nod at the same time as saying this.

You may notice when in the country that many Japanese people do not say thank you to shop or restaurant staff. This is not considered rude. But as a foreigner it is best to be politer than you need.

Many books will list ‘arigato’ as ‘thank you’. While this is correct – ‘arigato’ is a casual ‘thank you’, you would normally use the more formal version when dealing with shop, restaurant or other staff. ‘Arigato’ by itself is suitable for use with close friends.

An ever more polite ‘thank you’ is ‘arigato gozaimashita’. This is something that you may hear shop, restaurant or other staff say to you. You wouldn’t normally say it back to them though – ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ is the more appropriate response.

Normally when you have paid in a shop or restaurant the staff will say ‘arigato gozaimashita’ to you first. Then you can say ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ to them before leaving.

2. Sumimasen

The full pronunciation would be ‘sue-me-ma-sen’, however when you hear Japanese people saying it the word sounds squashed into something more like ‘suei-ma-sen’.

This is quite a versatile word. You can use it to say ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘thanks’.

If you bump into someone then you can say ‘sumimasen’ to apologise.

If you want to get past someone you can say ‘sumimasen’ to say ‘excuse me’.

If you want to say a very small non-final thanks – for instance the waiter hands you a towel to clean your hands you can say ‘sumimasen’. You’d still say ‘arigato gozaimasu’ when he has completed doing whatever he is doing at the table or when you have been given your food.

3 4 & 5. Ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa and konbanwa

After having learnt ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’/ ‘excuse me’ the next essential phrases to learn are good morning, good afternoon, good evening.

Although ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ is generally translated as ‘Good Morning’ it can’t be used interchangeably with ‘Good Morning’. It is only valid until about 10am in the morning.

After 10am you must use ‘konnichiwa’. Note that in pronouncing this word there are two ‘n’ sounds. Don’t merge them together. It is kon-nichiwa. You can use konnichiwa from 10am, through the afternoon and into the evening until the sun sets.

Konbanwa is good evening and you can use this after the sun has set until the early morning when you start to use ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ again.

Do I need other words?

Although more words are useful you can certainly survive in Japan for a holiday with just those phrases. I’ll give you some more survival tips below.

English in Japan

English is not very widely spoken in Japan. In Tokyo you will find basic English spoken at hotels, tourist sites, and tourist friendly restaurants. In other cities English is less spoken, and if you get off the usual tourist trail you may find that almost no English is spoken.

If you need ask a question in English then your best place to get an answer may well be the reception of the nearest hotel. Reception staff in hotels often can speak English – or there will be someone around who does. Reception staff are great if you are lost and need directions. If no hotel is available then you may find that young Japanese women in their 20s or 30s have the best spoken English.

Because of the way English is taught in Japanese schools you will find that written English is much better understood that spoken English. If you are not getting anywhere with your spoken English but you realise that the person you are talking too knows some English then try writing the question down. But don’t use joined up letters as joined-up writing is not usually on the syllabus in schools!


Kanji are the Chinese characters used in Japan. There are thousands of them and obviously you can’t learn kanji for your holiday.

However I do recommend that if you are travelling around you learn the kanji for the place you are staying. For example if you are in a hotel in Osaka then learn the kanji for Osaka (大阪). You will find knowing your ‘home’ kanji very useful if you are trying to get a bus or train back. Signs outside of tourist areas may not have any English.

Knowing that the kanji for weekday is 平日 will help you know which section to look at on a bus timetable. If you know the kanji for where you are going then you might even be able to work out which timetable to look at.

japanese bus timetables

There are a few other kanji in this post that you may find useful.


There are many kinds of restaurant in Japan. Some are fairly Western, others are very Japanese!

You have to be a bit careful to judge the kind of restaurant before you go in so you don’t make a bad faux pas!

If there are people in front of you observe what they do on entering the restaurant. In particular you may need to know what the etiquette is regarding shoes. Walking on a shoe free area with your shoes still on is very bad!

Many Japanese restaurants and other establishments require you to remove your shoes. You’ll generally be able to recognise these places as they will have slippers on the floor near the entrance and then you will have to step up onto the raised wooden floor. You can either wear the slippers or walk in your socks

There will generally be a rack to put your shoes, or sometimes there may be a locker.

In a more Western restaurant (if you go to an Italian for example) you’ll probably be keeping your shoes on.

If you take your time entering the restaurant rather than striding in have a quick look around then you should be able to see what kind of system they are operating.

You can indicate how many people are in your group by using your fingers. A small bow and ‘konnichiwa’ can be said before this if you want.

Menus generally have lots of pictures in them so you can order by pointing to what you want and indicating the quantity. In larger cities in Japan the staff may speak basic English. In more remote areas you might just have to get by with hand signals.

When seated you can get the attention of the staff with a nod, or saying ‘sumimasen’, or sometimes they may give you an electronic buzzer to call them. Japanese waiting staff are very attentive so you should find it very easy to get served.

‘Arigato gozaimasu’ is the appropriate way to thank the waiter when your food is brought. A small bow can be used too.

After bringing your food the waiter will probably put the bill on your table. If you order more food, they’ll bring you an updated bill.

When you have finished you take the bill to the counter and hand it to them. You don’t tend to pay at the table as you might do in America or England. They’ll press some buttons on the till and tell you the price again – it will be the same as on your bill.

Usually there will be a tray to put your money in, and they will then give you any change.

You shouldn’t give tips in Japan. It is not expected and may even cause confusion. Good service is included without requiring extra bribes – as it should be!

If you are vegetarian I have a separate guide about being vegetarian in Japan.


Ordering in a café is similar to ordering in a restaurant except that you may be ordering at the counter (unless it is a very posh café where they may take your order from the table).

If you order at the counter you’ll pay them at the counter. If they take your order from the table they’ll give you a bill and then you’ll go to the counter to pay after you have finished.

Vending machines

Japanese vending machines are pretty self explanatory. But you might not have noticed that there are red and blue boxes below the buttons. The blue boxes will get you a cold drink and the red boxes will get you a hot drink.

japan vending machine 07


As in restaurants and cafes you usually pay in a shop by putting the money in a tray.

Receiving your change

Whether in a restaurant, cafe, or shop there is a certain etiquette that the staff follow when giving you your change.

First they will count out the notes in front of you. Then they will hand the notes to you using both hands.

Next they will count out the coins and give these to you.

The notes and coins are always given to your separately so don’t worry if at first you think you aren’t being given enough change!

Japanese Trains

If you want to book a specific train at the ticket counter then don’t count on the member of staff speaking English. Your best bet is to write your destination, and the date and time of the train on a piece of paper. This should ensure you get the right ticket.

Japanese Buses

On most regular buses in Tokyo you will enter (入口) from the front door and exit (出口) from the middle door.

But through much of the rest of the country it is the other way around – enter through the middle door and exit through the front door. Make sure you check before getting on.

When you enter through the middle door the system will probably be that you’ll take a ticket from the dispenser by the door. It will have a number on it. On a screen at the front of the bus will be a list of numbers and the prices for your journey. The prices will increase as the bus goes further.

When you have reached your stop put the ticket and the correct money into the container at the front. Watch what other people do. If you don’t have the correct change there will be a change-maker at the front of the bus which will accept 1000 Yen notes.

inside Japanese bus

Not all buses have variable fares though. Some buses have a fixed fare no matter how far the bus goes. A fixed fare bus will have no tickets in the machine, all the prices on the board at the front will be the same, and there may well be a sign in the bus saying it is a fixed fare bus.


People drive on the left in Japan. This will be intuitive for English and Australians. Maybe not so intuitive for Americans!

Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked – usually with black and white stripes – and often have counters telling you how long it is until the lights will change. You shouldn’t cross unless the light is green – it can be an offence to illegally cross the road.

Crossing places without pedestrian green/red lights are marked with black and white stripes. You can cross when it is safe – cars have the right of way.

On roads without pavements you should just be careful.

You will see lots of cyclists in Japan cycling along the pavements. They don’t usually go too fast, and will cycle around you. Don’t make sudden movements when you are walking or they may crash into you!

At railway crossings you should keep your ears open – there may not be a visible sign that the gate is about to close.

Japanese Toilets

Signs for toilets are usually in English, but sometime in katakana. In this case look out for the sign saying トイレ (to-i-re).

The symbols for male and female are usually self explanatory unless they are written in kanji.

男 is the kanji for male.

女 is the kanji for female.

Many larger toilets have a map near the entrance which shows you which types of toilets are located in which cubicle. In Japan you have squat toilets, standard western sit down toilets, and the high tech Japanese toilets.

If you can’t work out where the flush is (if it is a high tech toilet) you can look for the large 大 / small 小 kanji to find which button to press. Can you find the flush on the toilet control panel below?

Japanese toilet control panel

On long distance coaches the toilets often have two buttons on the wall. The yellow one is the flush (you can see the small toilet picture). I’m guessing the red one is the emergency alarm – but I’ve never tried it!

Japanese coach toilet buttons red yellow

Power adaptors

If you want to save on wear and tear of your own power plug adaptor (especially if you are in the country for a while) then it might be a good idea to buy a cheap multi-socket adaptor from a 100 Yen shop (it will cost more than 100 Yen!). Plug your own adaptor permanently into the multi-socket one and only plug the multi-socket adaptor’s plug in and out of the mains sockets.

More Japan survival information

I have some other posts on various Japan survival topics that you might be interested in. I have written about iPhone apps for learning Japanese, how to get a working holiday visa, setting up a Japanese WiFi router, how to translate Japanese for free with OCR software, sending a letter from a Japanese post office, and the Japanese alien registration process.

iPhone apps for learning Japanese

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

There are many different ways you can learn a foreign language such as Japanese. There are classes, textbooks, CDs, applications for your PC or Mac, podcasts, language exchanges etc. Now you can learn Japanese on your iPhone and iPod Touch as well.

I’ve tried many different iPhone Japanese learning apps and am going to review the five apps that are still installed on my iPod Touch! In other words the apps that I found useful enough to keep.

Human Japanese – Version 2.0

Human Japanese is a bit like an interactive textbook. It has chapters covering loads of topics such as verbs, questions, numbers, kana (hiragana / katakana) and particles. In the current version there are 40 chapters dedicated to learning Japanese and another 6 chapters of cultural information about Japan.

human japanese iphone

Human Japanese works you through the various chapters starting from complete beginner level. As well as reading the Japanese words, each word or phrase can be clicked on to allow you to hear how a Japanese person would pronounce it – very useful.

To help cement what you have learnt many of the chapters have multiple-choice quizzes where you can test your English to Japanese and Japanese to English skills.

This is a very well put together application. There is a free version available to download from the app store with a limited number of lessons. If you like it you can buy the full version.

Download from iTunes: Human Japanese – Brak Software

Kotoba Japanese Dictionary

If you are learning Japanese then you’ll definitely need a dictionary. Paper dictionaries can be slow to use and are bulky to carry around.

To solve these problems you can get Kotaba – it is a full Japanese dictionary for free!

As you’d expect there is a search facility where you can type in an English word and you’ll get a list of results in a few seconds. You can also type in the Romanised version of the Japanese word (e.g. watashi, chika) and you’ll get the Japanese words that match.

Kotoba Japanese dictionary iphone

For Japanese words Kotoba will give you the Kana version (in either Hiragana or Katakana), the Romanised version (useful if you haven’t yet learnt the kana) and the Kanji. For words that are composed of multiple Kanji the dictionary will break the Kanji down into their component parts.

For each Kanji Kotaba gives you a whole list of supplemental information which can be useful if you want to look the Kanji up in a textbook.

If you want to save a word for later then you can add it to your ‘favourites’ list – a great feature when you are trying to learn the language. There is also a history list that shows you which words you have recently viewed.

I have just one suggestion for a future version – that is to allow the favourites list to be exported or saved – I’d find it quite handy to be able to save the list to my laptop or print it out.

I can’t fault this iPhone Japanese dictionary – it is free and extremely useful.

Download from iTunes: Kotoba! (Japanese dictionary) – Pierre-Phi di Costanzo

Japanese Pod 101 – Newbie Lessons 1-25

This iPhone / iPod Touch app comes from the people at Japanese Pod 101 who do great podcasts for learning Japanese. They have loads of podcasts available to download for free and more learning material available for people who subscribe.

They have released some of their more structured lessons in the form of iPhone applications.

If you do a search for these applications it is a bit confusing to work out which app to get. There are a whole series of applications from them with very similar sounding names and very little description as to the content. For example some of the apps are listed as ‘begginner’ and others as ‘newbie’. Is one of these supposed to be more advanced than the other? I’ve no idea – but I took a chance with the Newbie lessons 1-25.

This has 25 different audio lessons – each is about 6-8 minutes long. You are meant to follow the lessons from the beginning. For each lesson you can listed to the audio as a single track or you can play it line by line. There is also a brief write up for each lesson, vocabulary lists, flashcards and grammar points. Words that you have trouble with can be saved to the Word Bank to look at later.

japanesepod101 newbie 1-25 iphone

As with all the learning material from japanesepod101 this is a good course to help your learn Japanese. The audio has been put together very professionally.

There are a few suggestions that I have for the makers to make this better.

  • Make it easier to distinguish between the many apps with very similar names. It is confusing working out which one to buy in the app store.
  • The audio lessons are very professional with proper voice actors and good sound quality. However the lesson write-ups look like they have been done in Notepad. They could do with some formatting to make them look better.
  • The 25 lessons don’t have proper names – they are just called ‘Lesson 1’, ‘Lesson 2’ etc. They should have names that indicate the topic of the lesson to make it easier to find the one you want when you go back through them later.
  • As the audio is in an app rather than as an MP3 playing through the normal iPod music player you have to keep the iPhone/iPod Touch screen on to listen to it. It you press the power button to switch the screen off (as you would when listening to music) the audio stops. I imagine that there is nothing that can be done to fix this as I don’t think Apple allow apps to run when the screen is switched off. However I’ve found that it is still possible to listen to the podcasts when my iPod is in my pocket as fortunately the play/pause button is very small.

Overall this is a good set of Japanese lessons – but a few tweaks to the app could make it much better.

Download from iTunes: Pocket Japanese – Newbie I (1-25) – Innovative Language Learning, LLC

Japanese Essentials by AccelaStudy

There are different ways of remembering foreign language vocabulary. One way is to use flashcards that show you a Japanese or English word. You have to then recall the translation.

This is what Japanese Essentials does. It has categories of word lists that you can choose from (shopping, colours, numbers, etc). You can choose which ones to revise and test yourself on them.

accelastudy japanese learning iphone

Japanese audio for each word is provided so you can hear how the words are pronounced.

You can choose to study the flashcards one by one, do spaced repetition and do a quiz.

This is a very simple application but does what it does well. There is a free version with a limited number of words and categories, and a full (paid version) with 2100 words in 65 categories.

Download from iTunes: AccelaStudy® Japanese | English – Renkara Media Group, Inc.

Beginning Japanese Words & Phrases

Japanese Words and Phrases is an interesting app which allows you to learn in several ways.

There are many categories containing lists of words. You can look at the whole list, or learn the list one by one using flash cards. Japanese audio for each word or phrase is provided. Words can be saved to the Study Bank for later. When you have learnt the words you can test yourself using the built in quizes.

japanese words and phrases iphone

As well as the words and phrases you can work through the built in lessons on a number of topics.

There are lessons on the Hiragana and Katakana phonetic alphabets which if you are serious about Japanese you’ll definitely need to learn.

Then there is a Grammar Fast Track 100 containing 100 pages of information, each one about a particular grammar point. For example one is about verb forms and another is about counters.

There is a lesson that gives an introduction to a small number of Kanji, and there are some miscellaneous lessons on family words and polite Japanese amongst others.

I don’t find I use the flashcards much but I have been finding the grammar lessons interesting – Japanese grammar can be tricky!

There is a free version of this app available with a limited subset of features and the full version has everything described above. Another recommended app for your iPhone if you want to learn Japanese.

Download from iTunes: Japanese Phrases & Lessons –