Monthly Archives: July 2016

Japanese short story review: “Memoirs of a traveller” (ある旅人の手記) by Romo Mamiya (まみや ろも)

“Memoirs of a traveller” (ある旅人の手記) is another short story I recently found on the free novel and short story site 「小説家になろう」.

It reasonably short, at around 8,000 characters, and is grouped in the “human drama” (ヒューマンドラマ) category. If you are like me, and haven’t heard of this word before, it basically means works that focus on the “humanity” of the characters. You can read a little more about it here.

Here is the story’s synopsis and my rough English translation of it.

 

小さな車で旅に出よう。 どこに辿り着いて。 誰に出会うのか。 何を見て。 何を聞くのか。 その先々で心に残った何かを。 記して行こうと思います。

I think I’ll go on a trip in my tiny car. Where will I end up, and who will I meet? What will I experience? I’ve decided to write down the memorable things that happen to me at each place I visit.

 

I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t the most dramatic synopsis. There is no aliens coming to destroy earth, and no blood-seeking vampires. But it was enough to create a small, but definite curiosity, just enough for me to read the first few lines. I think part of what drew me in was the very vagueness of the story, with only a hint that interesting things might happen on the way.

This short story doesn’t use many advanced words or Kanji found in “literature”, so if you have a few years of Japanese under your belt (or even less) you can probably get through it with enough time. The sentence structure is pretty simple as well, with mostly short sentences and frequent paragraph breaks.

While there are some interesting events and twists that take place, rather than the individual events I like the overall atmosphere this story creates. It was enjoyable throughout and well worth the read.

UPDATE: I originally hadn’t realized the story is not complete. At present, chapters are still be added as the author finishes them (連載中).

If you are interested, you can check it out free here.

 

Quick manga review: サイケまたしても (Psyche Once Again, “saike mata shite mo”) by Tsubasa Fukuchi

This manga was recommended by someone, so I decided to read through the first volume.

At first, the plot seemed strongly reminiscent of a certain early 90s movie about a unique type of “time travel”, however as you read into the 2nd and 3rd parts you start to see there is much more depth to it. The ending of the first volume was quite satisfying, and well worth the read.

The Japanese isn’t that difficult, and all of the kanji has Furigana reading hints which reduce the amount of lookups required for those who don’t know too much kanji yet.

I think this has been licensed for English, but a quick search didn’t show up if the English version is actually available.

I’m rushing this review since you can read the first volume for free on Ebookjapan (it’s normally 400 yen) until tomorrow (7/26)

Check it out here.

Japanese short story review: 「緩慢な表象と虚ろな幻想」”Unreliable Symbol, Hollow Illusion” by 藤村由紀 (Yuki Fujimura)

Recently I reviewed the site “小説家になろう” which is where you can find thousands of free Japanese novels and short stories of various genres.

One thing I’ve realized (again) when looking for Japanese stories to read is that I’m quite picky about the types of stories I read. I try to stay away from things that sound too commonplace, like generic love stories. I like things to be “weird”, but not too weird. As a result, I generally prefer Fantasy and Sci-Fi that are set in unique worlds, or have interesting elements I haven’t seen before.

So it’s no surprise that it took me some time to skim through a bunch of summaries on this site until I found something that really caught my interest.

With “緩慢な表象と虚ろな幻想” (loosely translated as “Unreliable Symbol, Hollow Illusion”), I was really caught off guard by the creative premise, and was eager to dig in. It’s what I would call a medium-length story, with 28,506 characters. Before I knew it, I’d finished the entire thing.

Rather than talk about the story in my own words, I’ll just translate the summary as listed on the site into English:

遠くて近い未来、職業作家は姿を消した。国民は一生に一冊の本を出版することが義務付けられ、だが二冊目は許されない。本屋に並ぶ本は、全て誰かの一生に一冊だ。―――― どこまでも自由で、不自由な時代、言葉を惜しむ僕と、物語を愛した彼女のお話。

In the distant, but not too distant future, the profession of book author has disappeared. Every member of society is legally obligated to publish one book during their lifetime, but a second work is prohibited. Every book for sale in a bookstore is someone’s one and only published work. 

This is the story of a boy who keeps his words close to his heart and a girl who is in love with the art of storytelling.

Sounds pretty interesting, don’t you think?

Linguistically, I’d say the Japanese used in this book is moderate level, despite the fact the title contains four difficult, somewhat uncommon words (especially the first two). The style of this book is interesting because it combines some down-to-earth dialogue (much of it sounds like something you might hear in real life) plus some more abstract, deep stuff that you can find in hard literature.

I found the vocabulary used to talk about the process of book writing very informative, and would like to memorize many of these terms for use myself. Maybe I’ll make another post with some words from this story.

Despite the fact that 「小説家になろう」generally contains stories by amateurs or semi-pro writers, the quality of this story is very good. I think there was one or two typos, and a few places which could use a bit of polishing up, but overall it was well written.

If you have been reading my blog with any consistency you might be guessing at this point that I’m considering translating at least part of this story, and you would be right. I’ve actually sent a message to the author to see if he would be interested in working with me to produce an English translation. If things go well, I’d probably be translating it in chapters (there are 11) since it’s a bit long.

Anyway, the great thing about this story is it’s totally free, so if you want to give it a try, you can check it out here.

If you do read it and enjoy it, consider giving feedback and writing a review of it on that site. I’m sure the author would appreciate it. You may need to become a member first, but that only takes a minute or two to do.

If you are interested in a English translation of this story, please consider liking this post.

Unofficial translation: Japanese Novel “Witch of the Library” (図書館の魔女) [1st chapter]

Recently, I finished reading the first volume of “Witch of the Library” (図書館の魔女) by Daisuke Takada (高田大介) which I reviewed in detail here. Put simply, it is a pretty interesting hard fantasy (think Tolkien) book which requires a pretty high level of Japanese vocabulary and grammar to get through.

Typically, I wait until I finish a novel before considering translating part of it, but in this case I liked the intro so much I started on this translation quite early on, finishing everything but the final editing before I completed the book. I think rather than the story itself, I was enamored with the descriptive style and attention paid to certain details that normally would have been ignored by the author. While I had read novels in English with a similar style, I think this is one of the first times I have experienced this style in Japanese.

The translation is one of the longer ones I’ve done, and took many rounds of editing to try and get the wording and flow right. Normally I would have preferred to do a shorter portion, but I wanted to go until there is a good stopping point, so I decided to do the entire first chapter.

A small part of the chapter discusses charcoal kilns which I was clueless about, so I actually did some research on how this process works, even watching a video or two. While I don’t think many people in the modern age will be making charcoal, the process of how it’s made is pretty amazing, and an interesting piece of history.

Just to be clear, this is a totally unofficial fan translation. If you enjoy this and know Japanese well enough, please consider buying the novel someplace like Booklive. Or buy the book for a friend who speaks Japanese. The Booklive link allows you to read a sample portion of the book as well, which you can use to match against my translation below.

At present I don’t have plans to translate any more of this work, but if you are interested in reading more please like this post and/or write a comment.

 

[Translation begins here]

(図書館の魔女 第一巻     高田大介)

The Witch of the Library: Volume 1  (de sortiaria bibliothecae)

Part 1: The village of mountain dwellers, Ichi No Tani, The Witch of the Library, and words within hand.

Chapter 1: The last day in the mountain village

 

His last day in the mountain village had begun.

In the dark room, the boy was already awake. As he slowly got out of bed, goosebumps formed on his arms and steam rose from around his neck. He rubbed his eyes and then let out a small, noiseless yawn. After stretching his body briefly, he tied his hair back in a knot.

Folding the thin bed cover and placing it at his feet, he made the bed and groped around for his sandals on the floor with his feet. Once his toes found their place within the sandal straps, the boy stood up silently and left the room, tying the belt on his two-legged hakama on the way out. The mountain hut was too crude to have anything like doors connecting the rooms.

In the next room, an old man penned a letter beneath the light of a candle. Sitting hunched over in the room’s built-in desk, his knotted fingers quivered around a well-worn quill as they methodically formed character after character upon thin, pliable paper of a kind rarely seen around these parts. His only reaction to the boy’s entrance was a brief “Good morning” without turning around. The boy acknowledged the greeting with a silent nod to the old man’s back, passing through the rear door on the way to the balcony. He spoke not a word, his footsteps equally silent.

The boy hung a pail from his arm and jumped off the balcony–rising nearly 10 feet high–down to the slope below, where the mountain underbrush was wet with dew and and the straps of his sandals dug into the soft sand. He wove through the pillars stuck deep in the ground that supported the hut and headed to the narrow trail out back. At the top of the trail was a small, narrow plot of land where a well rested beneath the shade of an oak tree.

The well’s pulley squeaked as the boy drew the day’s first water.  After carefully pouring out the excess water from the pail, he released the well bucket, and it began to plummet down into the darkness from its own weight. The boy pressed the palm of his hand firmly against the pulley to slow the pail’s fall. Right before it reached the water’s surface he applied a little extra pressure and stopped the pulley completely. Finally, the boy loosened his grip to let the pulley spin one more revolution and the bucket descended further into the dark well, stopping quietly with its lower half submerged in water.

The boy returned to the mountain hut, traversing the narrow path at a careful pace to avoid rocking the bucket and spilling the water within. Midway up the stairs that led to the hut’s balcony, one of the steps creaked almost imperceptibly.

He placed the pail down gently near the wall next to the kiln. The moment it made contact with the ground, a faint circular ripple appeared in the water’s surface, converging inwards until it disappeared at a point in the center.

“Kirihito,” the old man called out. He had already inserted his completed letter into an envelope, dripped a few drops of candle wax upon it, and was in the middle of sealing the letter with the signet ring he had removed from his finger.

“Boy, no matter how hard you try, you always make noise on the steps on the way back from the well.”

The boy who had been called “Kirihitio” drooped his head every so slightly and mumbled an apologetic “Yes sir”. He didn’t think for even a second his master would have missed the sound, although today only a single step had creaked.

“Only a single step, though,” bluntly added the old man–the boy’s “master”–as he if could read Kirihito’s mind. Hearing this, the boy felt a little better.

The others in the village might have thought the master was too hard on the boy. In truth, Kirihito’s entire life was tightly controlled by a nearly incomprehensible number of strict rules of the like seen nowhere else.

But Kirihito had made up his mind long ago to honor these harsh demands. His master had never made a request to the boy that he couldn’t have handled himself. And the boy had a deep respect for his teacher, making it a point to conduct himself just as his teacher would, each and every day of his life.

 

The boy was to leave the village today at dusk. He had been told in advance of these arrangements, but that didn’t change the fact he had daily tasks to attend to. Before setting out on his journey, there was a few things he had to take care of. The boy had been given the responsibility for several charcoal kilns and had to properly seal the one he had most recently set fire to. The smoke rising from one of the ascending kilns below his hut had already begun to change to a transparent blue. The time to block its air intake was near at hand. Furthermore, he had promised to deliver today’s shipment of charcoal to the apprentice blacksmith.

Kirihito went to the crude shack below the kilns and took out a rack made from raw wood that was used for transporting heavy loads. He dragged some finished charcoal from under a straw mat and began loading it onto the rack.

The hard pieces of charcoal were all bent in different angles such that no two had the same shape. Packing them haphazardly was bound to cause problems. The bundle of packed charcoal would jut out from the top of the rack, making descending the mountain trails that much more difficult. The carelessly loaded charcoal would eventually start to shift, little by little, and settle in place. As a result, the once tightly-bound rope would become slack. Pieces of charcoal would undoubtedly fall to the ground and everything would have to be repacked and retied before moving on. Kirihito packed the charcoal swiftly, yet carefully, stick by stick. Each piece had its place. The pieces of the fully formed charcoal knocked into one another, making dull sounds as they were skillfully packed, and before long they formed a single, well-organized mass upon the rack.

Kirihito, with no time to dwell on a job well done, proceeded to tie the rope tightly around the rack before equipping it on his back, securely fastening the shoulder straps and heading towards the kilns. He picked up the long, narrow stone which had been set aside beforehand and jammed it into the ventilation hole of the kiln that was waiting to be sealed. Like the others, this kiln had begun to cool. It’s sealing process was now complete, executed with perfect timing. He had confidence in the charcoal it would produce. However, unfortunately for Kirihito, it would be another week until it fully cooled and the charcoal could be safely extracted. By the time the charcoal was ready, the boy would be long gone. He had supervised its production from the start and knew the final result would be of superb quality. Nevertheless, he would be leaving the fate of it in the hands of another charcoal burner. Today the boy would be departing the village.

Kirihito shouldered the charcoal-filled rack and went to deliver it to the blacksmith residing one mountain south of the kilns. This blacksmith was the most prominent on the mountain, having been employed to make farm tools for the northern outskirts of the city Ichi No Tani which lie across the mountain pass, and the boy had promised to make two more round trips to deliver equally sized bundles of charcoal by the end of today.

In the mountain village here, a group of people commonly known as “mountain-dwellers” have lived for many ages by working in harmony with the elements of iron, stone, and fire. Their livelihoods relied on the mountain and what it provided. Charcoal burners, quarry workers, even blacksmiths–none of these people could imagine leaving this mountain they called home. The workers of this village, who used the earth, rocks, iron, and fire to make tools and weapons required for farming, cooking, or military purposes, had no choice but to lead a life in close contact with this mountain. No matter how much they were ridiculed by the city people as lowly “mountain-dwellers” or “country folk from the mountain”, those from the mountain village took great pride in their work and instinctively understood that their lives could never be separated from the mountain.

On a mountain like this, hand-drawn carts or farm animals served no purpose and only got in the way. Ultimately, the only thing that could be relied upon here was the strength of the human body, so naturally the men and women of the village were strong, tough, and sturdy yet humble, to an extent unimaginable by those raised in the city. Even the most girlish of the wives in the mountain village could easily carry a hefty load which would make any city man stare in bewilderment. This was the sort of environment where the boy was raised.

“Good work. Now leave the charcoal in the usual place,” instructed the young blacksmith, bronze-colored skin oozing sweat while his well-built upper arms reflected the light from the raging furnace.

“Two bundles remaining this morning. I appreciate your help.”

The apprentice blacksmith “Blackrock”, well known in these parts despite his young age, was most likely a secret favorite of the village girls, but because of his tendency to openly tease them he was under the false impression they didn’t think very highly of him. It was blatantly obvious to a even a boy like Kirihito, who was terribly ignorant of the ways of the world, that the great majority of the girls speaking ill of the blacksmith were in fact terribly in love with him.

“You’re leaving today, right?”

“Yes,” Kirihito responded regretfully, to which Blackrock shook his head.

“Your master is quite strict.”

“I’m only doing as I promised.”

“Sure, but don’t you think that at least for your last day, especially considering the good weather, he should let you take it easy?”

Kirihito was caught off guard by the phrase “last day”. Apparently Blackrock was interpreting Kirihito’s departure of the village as his “last day” here.

“Without fail, I will return,” retorted Kirihito with a slight argumentative tone in his voice.

“No, you aren’t coming back.”

“But why would you… Yes, I am surely coming back.”

“To this village, you two are outsiders, both you and your master.”

Kirihito felt anger burn deep within his chest. And yet, he couldn’t help but admit to himself that Blackrock had hit upon something Kirihito had been concealing deep in his heart. Nonetheless, Kirihito stared up at Blackrock in defiance, some part of him refusing to accept things. Blackrock saw the conflicted expression on the boy’s face and quickly continued speaking, having realized the awkward position he was in. It was clear that his offhand remark hadn’t only confused the boy, but had hurt him deeply, leading the blacksmith to make an incoherent attempt to recover the situation.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you don’t fit in here. You know… you fit in here as well as anybody else. And for a shorty, you’re pretty strong too. You’re a honest worker who doesn’t complain. That’s right, I can really appreciate someone who can take whatever is given to them. Somebody like you. So I’m not trying to saying anything bad about you…” Kirihito continued to stare quietly up at the blacksmith. If the boy didn’t have such a hard shell, Kirihito might have already been on the verge of tears.

“It’s just that… you’re different. Different than the rest of us here.”

“What do you mean?” responded the boy, unconsciously raising his voice ever so slightly.

“You don’t belong here,” said Blackrock bluntly.

The blacksmith was surprisingly chatty considering his lack of tact. Blackrock was taken aback at how he, not known for his skill with words, had seemingly hit on some deep truth. Kirihito also froze for a brief moment, unable to speak. The boy had never even considered such a thing. And yet, the blacksmith’s words rang true in his heart. Blackrock continued on awkwardly.

“You can come back here whenever you want, and yeah, I think you should. You’re really a great help to all of us. Not just as a charcoal burner. I’d even like to take you in as my apprentice. I’m being serious here, no joke. That’d be the best thing for you. You’d be a great blacksmith, and that’s a job that only a real man can do. And I’d make you my apprentice.”

Blackrock continued on frantically despite Kirihito’s silence. The blacksmith crouched down next to the boy and spoke as if he was pleading desperately with him.

“I’m… I’m thinking of giving up my apprenticeship here to Inuo. After that, I plan to study under the swordsmith at the base of the cliff. I’m going to start afresh there. And then someday I’ll become a master swordsmith. You’ll see. Then once you come back, I’ll put you under my wing.”

“That’s not going to work. Becoming a blacksmith takes years of training.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you the ropes. I’ll train you. You deserve much better than the job of a lowly charcoal burner anyway,” Blackrock spoke even faster as if he was onto something.

Kirihito stared intently up at the blacksmith. Blackrock was at a loss for words, once again realizing he had spoken carelessly, this time insulting the entire profession of charcoal burning. He covered his mouth as if ashamed of his utterance, face set in a pitiful expression at odds with his sturdy build. But yet again, he quickly regained his composure and spoke whatever came to mind.

“Your master isn’t a typical charcoal burner either.”

“I know that.”

“You two are going down to Ichi No Tani, right?”

“My master is returning right away.”

“Oh really.”

“I’m also coming back someday too.”

“Sure.”

Just then, a loud crackling sound came from the direction of the furnace. The bulky master blacksmith stood before an anvil, spitting on his hands. Another man, Blackrock’s teacher, crouched before the fire, awaiting his pupil. Blackrock turned away and headed for the furnace without another word. The conversation ended, Kitihito returned to the mountain trail from where he’d come. Blackrock lifted his hammer to shoulder height in front of the furnace and glanced briefly at the trail. As the boy walked away, Blackrock raised his hand in farewell, and Kirihito unexpectedly returned the gesture without looking back. But how could the boy have possibly seen Blackrock?

“I guess that kid lives with the master,” said Blackrock’s teacher.

“I heard he’s leaving the village,” spoke the well-built master blacksmith.

“Yeah. But the kid was saying he’ll be back,” Blackrock answered as he raised the hammer and prepared to strike.

“The boy won’t be back anytime soon. Nobody’s ever returned,” his teacher mumbled as if reproving Blackrock, all without taking his eyes off the furnace’s flame.

A large lump of wrought iron was dragged out of the furnace, stirring up a hot wind around its red glow. Without further conversation, the men began to strike their hammers together in close coordination. The time for talk was over. The rhythm of their hammers’ sounds echoed in the cold morning air of the mountain village, gradually picking up speed as they worked. Blackrock’s attention was already fully absorbed by the lump of iron sparking before his eyes.

Blackrock swung his hammer in silence. It pounded metal in perfect rhythm without the smallest hesitation, leaving no room for any stray thoughts. And yet, for one brief instant as he was raising the hammer to strike, a doubt popped into his mind: What did his teacher mean by “Nobody’s ever returned”?

After that, Kirihito made two round trips to the blacksmith to deliver charcoal. Sunlight had finally begun to reach the deepest parts of the valley. The air around his hut was laden with the smell of breakfast preparations. His master had added hot water to the pot used for last night’s dinner and was boiling soup for breakfast. The dinner stew had been made from fish his master picked up on a rare trip to the city to stock up goods for the village. Though far from extravagant, the feast was a special touch for the boy’s last supper in the village. His master, who had prepared the meal, hadn’t expressed his feelings verbally, but Kirihito knew how he felt.

The wind felt good against his skin, flushed from a total of three round trips today carrying charcoal on the mountain trails, but as he disliked cooling his body unnecessarily he removed his tunic and carefully wiped the sweat from his upper body. Then he walked on the forest path north of the kiln leading to an empty field and sat cross-legged in the grass there. He gently placed his hands on his knees, bowed his head, and closed his eyes, focusing on the stirrings of the mountain that gradually intensified as noon approached.

He tried to calm his mind and meditate, but pieces of the conversations he had with the villagers during his morning tasks swirled around his consciousness, making it difficult to focus. At every place he stopped, he was greeted with warm words of encouragement regarding his journey. Being wished well by so many people normally would have been assuring, but to Kirihito’s ears these sounded like parting words before his death, and each time he heard them he was overwhelmed by conflicting feelings. Deep within his heart, his determination to return to this village no matter what battled with the truth behind the phrase muttered unexpectedly by Blackrock: “You’re different than the rest of us here.”

After sitting in meditation for several hours, ultimately unable to calm his mind, Kirihito stood up and began the exercises that signified the end of his morning schedule. He extended both arms out straight out to his sides and slowly twisted his upper body. He stooped down low and planted his hands on the ground, repeating this except this time he bent his body backwards and touched the ground once again. These simple, ordinary movements were made so slow that a fly at rest on his skin would not be scared away, and were executed with a grace that made him appear to be standing still. The boy’s skin became slick with sweat, and his breathing slowed to match his movements. Unaware to him, his master had crept up silently and was now standing behind him, watching the boy perform his exercises.

Kirihito returned to a sitting position on the ground with legs folded beneath him, staying perfectly still as his breath returned to normal, until some time later when his master suddenly mumbled “breakfast time” to no one in particular. Without a word, the boy got to his feet and followed the old man back towards their hut. On the way, Kirihito put his tunic back on and wiped the sweat from his forehead with its sleeve.

 

His master served soup into two bowls that had been used since morning for drinking water, and Kirihito withdrew a chunk of bread from his pocket. He tore it into several pieces, one for his master and two for himself. They sat on the floor in front of the stove and gave a silent prayer before beginning their slow, deliberate meal. The bread was unlike the white, soft bread sold in the city, and was much heavier with darker grains that ripened as time passed. This bread was already three days old, giving each bite had a particular sourness, but the boy couldn’t imagine a more delicious meal. The soup, devoid of any actual fish, only had a subtle hint of fish flavor, but to Kirihito, who was accustomed to broth made from mountain vegetables, it was a special treat. He absorbed the last drop of soup remaining in the bowl with a piece of bread, savoring the flavor as he chewed the last bite in his mouth for a long, long time.

Japanese Novel Review: “Witch of the Library” (図書館の魔女) by Daisuke Takada (高田 大介) [1st book]

When searching for a new Japanese novel to read, I decided to peruse through the Fantasy section of Booklive (one of my favorite E-book sites) to see what was available. A few of the books looked pretty cheesy, but one of the book’s title and cover art intrigued me: “Witch of the Library” (図書館の魔女) by Daisuke Takada (高田 大介). This was the first of a 4-book series, which normally I try avoid because of how long it takes me to read novels in Japanese, but I decided to try out the sample chapter on Booklive anyway.

Though the sample chapter left me with mixed feelings, it intrigued me enough to decide to go ahead and purchase the book and see how the story would continue. Roughly 5 weeks later, I finished reading the novel.

The story begins with a simple boy from a mountain village preparing to go on a journey to a far off place. The details as to why he is going are vague, but there is a good indication he may never return. We don’t know that much about him initially, except that he is very meticulous, strong, and has worked as a laborer doing things like working with charcoal kilns.

As typical with my reviews, I’m not going to give away much of the story away, but I don’t think it’s any secret that the “Witch of the Library” will be a major part of what unfolds.

The most interesting, and at the same time frustrating thing about this book was how much my interest waxed and waned greatly throughout it. There were parts that I though were so awesome, I found myself reading them out loud and even thinking about memorizing them–really though provoking and unique, written about from an angle I’ve not seen many writers attempt. On the other hand, some parts bore me to sleep, and my reading pace slowed as it my legs were stuck in some type of quagmire.

Speaking generally, there are a few key topics: books, sign language, politics, and civil engineering. Yes, I said civil engineering. I’ll let you guess which parts I enjoyed and which I didn’t (:

Besides the fact that I happened to be into certain topics, I feel that some of the plot twists were quite unexpected, to the extent that you were wondering if the author changed his mind midway through the book. However, since it’s a 4-book series, he has sufficient time to tie up the loose threads by the last installment (which was out this year, by the way). Having said that, I would have liked him to make the book stand a little better on it’s own (resolve some mysteries by the end), even though it’s part of a series.

In contrast to the mysterious plot twists, there is one thing that is pretty consistent about this book–the Japanese is very difficult, in terms of words you’ve never heard, and Kanji you never seen. While I still do not consider myself an expert in Japanese literature, I decided to do some research on how Japanese people felt about this book, and you can see my post here about it. The bottom line is that even some Japanese people have said this book has difficult words, and in one of the comments on the post I just referred to a Japanese person says that this book has some of the most difficult vocabulary of books he has seen published this century. Besides the words themselves, the grammatical style of this book is also quite advanced, tending to long sentences and very long paragraphs.

So, I can only recommend this book for very advanced readers, or people like me who have a sadistic streak of reading difficult Japanese books. Here is a short list of a few relatively difficult words (or Kanji) in the first view pages: 鼻緒, 蠟燭, 樫,一劃,按配,収斂,炭焼き窯,背負子,鍛冶屋,大八車,逞しい,懇願.  Some of these have furigana reading hints, but many do not. If you do attempt to read this book, I’d recommend not trying to memorize the readings for each and every word, since that would take a long, long time. Just go for general understanding of what is going on.

Although the Japanese level is generally pretty difficult all the way through (except a few of the conversations), depending on your areas of expertise you may find things slower or faster going in certain areas. For me, the combination of difficult words and description-heavy style made me feel like many of the scenes were playing in slow motion, or “bullet time” if you may. If the scene is good, then all the better to savor it’s every moment. But if it’s not…

Despite my frustration with the story, I still have some interest in continuing onto the second book. However because of the difficult Japanese I think I will take a break, at least for now. If some of the mysteries laid out in the first book develop nicely and connect with various story points, it could become a great series overall.

I’m really glad I read this book, not just because of the good parts, but because I wanted more exposure to what Japanese “hard fantasy” is like. This is really the first book I’ve read in this genre, and both the language and story is very different from more popular literature authors like Murakami Haruki.

Around 80% through this book I suddenly had the realization that this book has many similarities to The Lord of The Rings series, including  a description-heavy style and parts that sounds like a history book. Depending on your tastes, this may be a blessing or a curse.

Besides Booklive, you can also get this book on places like Amazon Japan. But before you consider buying definitely check out the sample chapter here.

As with most books I read these days, I was considering translating a small part of this book into English. If you might be interested in reading this, please like this post.

Update: I translated the first chapter of this into English here.

Kukai: Quite possibly the best Ramen in America

Without a doubt, ramen soup is one of my favorite types of Japanese cuisine, but until recently we lived in an area devoid of restaurants that served decent ramen. Having moved to Portland a few months ago, I was eager to try Ramen at a bunch of restaurants in the area and compare, and I’ll admit I had pretty high expectations.

One of the first places we tried was Portland’s Kukai (空海), which is part of a chain called Kizuki that has locations all throughout the US, and many in Japan as well. Before writing a review about our experiences there, I decided to try a few other places, and today we came back to Kukai to see if we would have a similar experience as the first time.

It looks like I was right: Kukai serves, hands down, some of the best Ramen in Portland, if not in the US. From the rich, wavy noodles and the done-just-right hanjuku eggs, to the thick, savory broth, it’s hard to find fault with their near godlike ramen (by the way, “Kukai” is actually the name of a Japanese Buddhist monk). If anything, I felt the cut of meat they used was a bit too thin and spongy, making it a little tricky to eat with chopsticks. By their ramen satisfied my most important criteria with flying colors: the broth has to be tasty enough to be drinkable on it’s own.

The price is very reasonable, and some of their other non-ramen dishes were pretty good too, like the boiled spinach and chicken tori-age.

The ultra modern, stylish interior with Japanese-y accents is also a real eye pleaser, though I don’t think you’d see anything like it in Japan. The actual dining room is a bit narrow and tight, but that’s more of a problem for the waitstaff than the customers. The bathroom  can only support one person at a time, so if you need to go bad it’s probably not best to wait.

The service wasn’t quite as good as the food, especially when we were told today we couldn’t be seated until our entire party came. I understand they have limited space, but preparing the table and having it just sitting there for a few minutes and us sitting in the front area just seems illogical. The waitstaff was pretty quick, though, and nice enough to prepare a child bowl for our son before we sat down.

We haven’t spotted any Japanese-looking waiters or waitresses, and only one or two working behind the counter. This isn’t an absolute necessary, but generally the more Japanese people working the more authentic things are. But we did notice Japanese people eating at this restaurant both times we dined, which is a good sign.

I can say with certainty Kukai is the best Ramen I’ve had out of California or New York, and very possibly on par with my favorite Ramen place from those areas: Ippudo. I’d need to do a side-by-side comparison to say for sure.

You can see their website here which has their menu and other details.  If you are not sure what to get, I suggest their Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen, traditional variation.

On a minor linguistic note (unrelated to the food), I noticed their sign in the front said the following:

ありがとうご

ざいます

Thank You

 

See anything weird here?

 

 

kuukai

Recommend reading list for Japanese learners

Recently a few people asked me if I could provide a list of suggested novels for Japanese learners who don’t have enough experience yet to tackle popular adult novels, like those from authors like Haruki Murakami. In this post I’ll try to address that question and provide some related thoughts.

Knowing what type of reading material is appropriate is one of the challenges that is especially tricky for self taught learners of a foreign language. In a traditional class setting where a small group of students learn together with a teacher over a several month period, the teacher should be able to ascertain a good idea of each of student’s abilities, including their knowledge of culture, grammar, characters, and vocabulary. By using techniques like periodic quizzes to provide feedback on whether the students are truly understanding the material they have been given, the reading materials assigned can be even further refined.

On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to figure out the abilities of someone who is learning a language in a less controlled environment. This is especially true of reading and writing, which I’ve found correlate somewhat weakly to the number of years the language was studied, or number of years lived in a country where that language is spoken, at least compared to listening comprehension or conversational skill. Everyone learns at a different rate, so there is a risk to saying “If you’ve studied X years, then surely this book will be a good fit for you”.

When you are dealing with a language like Japanese, which is acknowledged as one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers, there is also a danger that a student could get frustrated after one or more failed attempts to read such recommended works, potentially leading to a temporary or permanent hiatus from studying that language.

Therefore, my number one recommendation is to actually make the effort to seek out and discover yourself the reading materials that are the best for you. As to where to search, here is a summary of sources, most of which I’ve discussed in previous posts:

  1. Brick-and-mortal Japanese bookstores in the US: Kinokuniya and Book-Off  (details)
  2. Booklive.jp: Japanese E-books (details)
  3. Ebook Japan: another great E-book site. I don’t use this much myself but know people who do (details)
  4. Syosetu.com: Thousands of free (unpublished) novels in Japanese (details)

There is one thing in common with all these options: they all allow some form of perusing through books before you buy them (立ち読み), whether it’s getting your hands on the physical book or a free digital sample of a few pages.

I’ve loved bookstores since I was a child. There’s nothing quite like the adventure of jumping freely through thousands of microcosms, looking for something that catches your interest. Start by just trying to read and understand their titles, then go deeper for those that sound more interesting. Be careful about using their marketing summaries as an indicator of difficulty, as they frequently contain more advanced language than the book itself due to the need to pack alot into a small space. It’s better to actually read the first sentence, paragraph, or even page to see whether it fits your linguistic abilities, and more importantly, whether you enjoy it.

I’ve found that If I’m really interested in where a story is going, I can push myself that much harder to get through difficult books. On the other hand, if something that perfectly matches my reading level bores me to death, odds are I won’t get to the end.

If you aren’t sure where to start, try simple children’s books (絵本、児童書, etc.). These are great for those of you who haven’t picked up much Kanji yet but are eager to read “real” books. Many also have spaces between the words which is a great help to beginners. You can find a surprising amount of cultural references in some of these, whether they are overt or subtle.

You can gradually move onto more advanced books, like those targeting boys and girls (少年向けの小説, 少女向けの小説), and eventually graduate to adult novels. Even within adult novels, the range of difficultly is so great than you shouldn’t get disheartened just because you had trouble understanding one of them. Don’t be afraid to go back to easier books if you find a certain genre of books is our of your league.

One thing that is good to know if you are just getting into reading more advanced Japanese is that each book has it’s own learning curve. What I mean by this is that things will typically get gradually easier as you read, but depending on the material (and your own experience), there is usually one or two points in time when things seem to suddenly get easier. You can imagine these visually as sudden bends in the curve of difficultly vs time. This because your mind eventually adjusts to the author’s style, including some of their commonly used grammatical patterns, expressions, and words. For some works I’ve noticed this after a few pages, for others nearly a quarter of the way through or perhaps longer. This is one reason once you’ve found something that is hard, but not too hard, it’s usually worth pushing yourself through at least 10 or 20 pages. You might be surprised how fast you pick up the patterns.

For those that have read and enjoyed one or more books in English which was translated from Japanese, that author’s other works are great candidates since you have some idea what to expect.

I’ve been writing this post with mostly novels in mind, but if you have typically read comic books in English, then I’d stick to Japanese manga for awhile until you get comfortable enough to try novels. Some popular manga series will have spin-off novels set in the same world as the manga that should be even easier for you to get into if you’re already a fan of that series (I mention one of these at the end of this post).

One necessary step to ensuring healthy reading skill development is knowing what your weaknesses are. With the exception of very basic children’s books, unless you have a strong foundation in grammar you’re reading sessions are going to be very slow going and frustrating. It’s true that looking up new vocabulary words can be tedious, but leveraging a popular online dictionary means the process of getting a rough understanding is pretty straightforward. Grammar, on the other hand, is much harder to research in the middle of a read, and can consume a great deal more time. If you are uncomfortable about your grammar knowledge, I’d devote at least half of your available study time to reading a grammar textbook or other grammar-intensive material until you feel you really have a good command of grammar.

One of the trickier areas of more advanced reading material is learning to parse long sentences. Even if you know all the grammar involved, getting your head around a 5-6 line sentence is a skill that takes time and careful analysis of the its structure. This is one reason that you want to gradually ramp up to more difficult texts as you hone your parsing skills over time. (I may write a post on this in the future since I haven’t seen too much written on it elsewhere)

Having said all that, I’d still like to give a few recommendations based on books I’ve read. (I’ve you are eager to get reading, you can start with #4)

 

Recommended Japanese books

  1. キッチン by 吉本ばなな

This is one of the very first adult novels I read, which I attempted after a few years of studying the language. Though I didn’t understand all of it back then, the themes involved are relatively simple and the story isn’t too had to follow. Knowing a few hundred basic Kanji is recommend though. Many years later, the story of this book has almost completely left my mind, but I don’t regret reading it as a early stepping stone to increased reading comprehension.

You can see a sample of the beginning of the book here.

2. 蹴りたい背中  by  綿矢りさ

I tried this book within a year of reading キッチン, purchasing it online since it was one of the few books that was available on a internet bookstore I used to frequent (“Sasuga” which closed in 2010 unfortunately). As with キッチン, the story wasn’t quite my thing, but the difficultly level was just enough for me to not get too frustrated.

You can see a sample of the book here.

3. 指定席〜ショートショート王国  by  赤川次郎

This book has much simpler grammar compared to the above two works. Since it’s a short story collection, it is perfect to give added satisfaction when you finish an entire story.

I wrote a detailed review on it here.

4. ブランコの向こうで  by  星新一

This has a great story and also relatively simple grammar and vocabulary. It also has an English translation so you can use that to compare against, though generally I don’t recommend that unless you are aiming to become a translator.

I wrote a detailed review of it here.

5. キャンディ・キャンディ Final Story   by  名木田 恵子

This story is based off the classic Manga and Anime series “Candy Candy”. While it’s decidedly written to target a female audience, I still enjoyed it’s twists and turns, and it’s honest depiction of a young girl’s feelings. The grammar and vocabulary isn’t too bad, but the story is made up of two books which means you’ll need a little extra endurance to finish the story.

I wrote a detailed review of it here.

 

If you have any recommendations for novels that you feel are appropriate for early readers, feel free to let me know in the comments. If I get enough responses I may make a separate post to list them all out.

As a final note, if you decide to try one of these works, or any other book, and get stuck early one, feel free to send me a comment. I can try to help explain things so you can get a little further.

What it’s like reading Haruki Murakami novels in their original Japanese

If you follow this blog you probably know that one of the main motivators for me to get serious about learning Japanese was because I am a big fan of the author Haruki Murakami and had a strong desire to read his novels in their original, untranslated, Japanese. When I meet people for the first time, the topic of why I started learning Japanese comes up pretty often, especially with those people who are into the language themselves. Recently, I had a few people ask me what it is like to read Haruki Murakami novels in Japanese as compared to the English translations. I had answered those questions briefly at the time, but I think the full answer to that question is worthy of a longer post.

One of my main reasons to originally get away from translated works is because I felt there was always a chance something was missing in the translation. I thought that no matter how good the translator was, some subtle nuance would be lacking, or maybe even a larger cultural reference would get translated out. Most novel translations that I’ve read don’t have a detailed notes section, which seems necessary for the reader to get a true understanding all the linguistic subtleties of the original text.

But, roughly two decades later, I am starting to feel that this not as big of a issue as I had originally imagined. After all, some of the translators for Murakami’s works, like the well renowned Jay Rubin, have amazing credentials and experience. Having started dabbling in some novel translations myself as a hobby, I know how hard this stuff is, and I can really appreciate that a skilled translator must have not just a great grasp of Japanese but also superb writing skills in English. While the overall story as whole will not usually be at risk in a translation, the line-by-line nitty gritty details at the sentence level are heavily influenced by the translator, and these can make or break the experience for the reader. Of course, all translators are not Mr. Rubin, and if I was going to do a detailed analysis of a novel I think there is still some value in referring to the original language. But overall my concern about missing out nuances when I read a translated work is a bit less than it was back then. Ironically, regardless of how fluent I get in reading Japanese, I think there will always be a certain level of understanding and appreciation of the content which I can only get when reading something in English, which includes translated works by an expert translator. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll ever read a book in English which was translated from Japanese since I always want to do my best to close that gap even further.

So, what other perks are there to being able to read Murakami’s books in Japanese?

It’s nice to be able to read his books when they first come out without having to wait for the English translation. For example, for “Kafka on the Shore” (海辺のカフカ), the first Murakami novel I read in Japanese, there was around a 3 year delay between the Japanese release and the English one. I can also enjoy any of his works that haven’t been translated yet. However, I think now that he is so popular, these two things no longer apply, with most of his works already translated and smaller gaps until translations are released.

To be honest, one of the main benefits is just the raw enjoyment and satisfaction I get from reading his works in Japanese. I actually read the first book of 1Q84 twice (review here) several years apart, which is the first time I’ve re-read a full length Japanese novel. One special thing I find with his books, compared to many other writers, is the Japanese is relatively easy for me to follow and understand. I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, I was used to his overall style from reading a few of his books in English first, which helped me guess what he was saying in Japanese. Second, his stories are generally really interesting and though-provoking to me, which keeps me motivated even in tough parts. Another reason is that his sentences are generally not overly complex, and while there is typically a great deal of description which can slow down the pace in other books, I feel that he uses more comparisons to everyday things rather than resorting to heaps of uncommon terms that I have to constantly look up in the dictionary. (Exception: at least one or two parts in 1Q84 had some pretty challenging reading, but that was done for atmosphere and tightly related to the story). Finally, I’ve heard people say that his Japanese has influences from the English language, which probably stems from his interest in American culture. I’ll never forget reading the phrase “キュウリのようにクール” (a direct translation of “cool as a cucumber”) which is clearly taken that expression in English. (There is some discussion on this phrase here).

Ironically, the fact his books are relatively easy for me to read in Japanese is one of the reasons I’ve branched out to read different authors (example). Every author has their own way of expression, including words and grammar constructions they commonly use, and sticking to a single author would be severely limiting my growth as a reader of Japanese works. The benefits are much greater too, since I get to read a bunch of authors that very few people in America have actually heard about. And there is an extra level of satisfaction as I successfully wade through the many challenging words and sentence structures used by these other Japanese authors–there is truly a universe of different styles out there. Very rarely have I given up, though in some cases it takes many months to get through a book.

I’m not sure when I’ll get time to pick up another of his books, but I’ll always be thankful to Mr. Murakami, because without him I might never have gotten sufficient motivation to study as hard as I did. If I end up pursuing my dream of becoming a translator for Japanese novels, I am not sure if I’ll ever get the great honor of translating any of his works. But, if I can help another Japanese author to become a hit in the English-speaking community, I’ll be happy enough (:

Ways to describe style in Japanese

When studying a foreign language, just because you can understand something doesn’t mean you have the requisite vocabulary and grammar knowledge in order to summarize it and talk about it’s content critically. In my Japanese studies, I’ve found that it can be frustrating to describe in any amount of detail something I’ve just read (novel, manga) or watched (anime, movie). It’s easy to start out with something like “とても面白かったです” but then it can be hard to figure out what to say next.

Over time, I’ve discovered some words that are valuable when you want to talk about the style of a work of art or other media. Here are a few of them:

世界観 (sekaikan)

This is one of my favorites, and comes from a compound of the word for “world” (世界) plus the character 観 which is used in the word 観る (miru), one way to say “to see” or “to view” when referring to things like movies or other entertainment.

One way to think about this term is “how one views the world” or “one’s outlook on the world”, but in the context of talking about some form of media, it can refer to the style of their works. After all, how the author views the world effects how they create and produce things.

  • これはデヴィッド・リンチの独特な世界観をみることが出来る作品です。
  • This is a work where you can see David Lynch’s unique style.

作風 (sakufuu)

This word is made from the character 作 which has a connotation of “create”, and from 風 which has a connotation of “style” (ex: インド風). The latter character also can refer to “wind” but that isn’t relevant here.

This word talks about the style of a work more concretely than 世界観.

  • その漫画家の作風は最近変わった。
  • That Manga artist’s style has recently changed.

文体 (buntai)

This word also means “style”, but as you might guess from the first character used, it refers more to style at the sentence level. A specific example of where 文体 could be used is talking about some written work that uses long sentences, or uncommon words.

  • この小説の文体が結構好き。
  • I really like the style of this novel.

絵柄 (egara)

This word, whose first character means “picture” and second “pattern” or “design” (among other things), is used to describe visual style.

  • この漫画の雑な絵柄は苦手。
  • I’m not a big fan of this manga’s rough art style.

表現力 (hyougenryoku)

This term is another one of my favorites, and comes from the noun 表現 (“express”, which can also be used as a verb with する) plus 力 which means “power” or “ability”. This can be used for nearly any type of art or media, from writing to music.

  • その画家は表現力が豊かですね。
  • That painter is very expressive.

描写 (byousha)

This word simply means “description” and can also be used as a noun with “する” to mean “to describe”.

  • 描写が 細かくてイメージしやすい。
  • The descriptions are very detailed and easy to imagine.

リアル(riaru)

This term is a loanword from the English “real” and is used to mean “realistic”.

  • あの画像はライルで怖かった。
  • That picture was so realistic it was scary  (literally: “That picture was realistic and scary”)