一級を目指す、日本語力の上達!: Studying for the JLPT1

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Friends and teachers from KAI Language School.

Friends and teachers from KAI Language School.

As I might have mentioned in my bio or in other posts, I started studying Japanese quite a long time ago. Between sixth and seventh grade I had the dilemma of choosing which foreign language to study (French, Spanish, Italian, or Japanese). I am an indecisive person in general, but I suppose at the time I knew that my foreign language selection might have a huge impact on my life. I enjoyed being exposed to all four of the languages in a “quarter” each of the school year, but was leaning toward Spanish for practical reasons. Yet, since I was 6 years old I’d been attracted to Japanese, the language of which seemed least practical out of the four. I turned in my selection sheet saying “Spanish” only to run back into my guidance counselor’s office to change my decision. Needless to say, that decision was one of the biggest ones in my life.

However, although I started at an early age I felt I was never able to improve as much as I’d hope to. One reason may be was that no matter when I was studying, middle school, high school, or even in college, my exposure to Japanese would be halted as soon as I exited the classroom. There were no Japanese families whom I knew of in my mostly-white (~82%) suburban hometown in New York. Even at Oberlin College I felt like I knew most of the international Japanese students who made up a small percentage of the already fairly small student body population.

Reading was by far my greatest weakness. Because I was never exposed to Japanese outside classes, just glancing for a few seconds at the Japan Times or the inside of a novel would get me frantically closing the browser or shutting the book. I was intimidated by all the unfamiliar kanji characters and discouraged by increasingly formal or complicated grammar. I just couldn’t get myself to read.

One of the great parts about being an Oberlin Shansi Fellow is that all Fellows are granted the opportunity to take summer language courses in the language of their site (Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi, or Indonesian). Some Fellows studied in intensive programs in the States, while others like me studied in their host countries. Our levels vary tremendously, but I especially admire my friends who are studying an entirely new language right before jumping in to teach for two years!

Because I hoped to travel around for fun before taking my course and because I have already experienced a year of study abroad in Japan, I looked for an intensive upper level course that was also a short period of time. At first I applied to a brand new, 3-week, upper-level intensive program by the Hokkaido International Foundation (HIF). Their popular 8-week program has been around for a while, and one of my Oberlin teachers has taught there in the past. Unfortunately, even after completing an application (with many recommendation letters and some essays in Japanese), the program was canceled because of lack of enrollment. (I’m thinking they just didn’t advertise it enough….)

After the time and effort I and my teachers put into that application, this cancellation was a bummer. (So was not getting back my application fee.)

BUT it was also a blessing in disguise because after more searching I found the Kai Japanese Language School and their three-week JLPT Preparation Course.

Me and my friend from Belgium. He loves writing in Japanese and his kanji/vocab skills are amazing!

Me and my friend from Belgium. He loves writing in Japanese and his kanji/vocab skills are amazing!

According to the JLPT official website:

The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has been offered by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (formerly Association of International Education, Japan) since 1984 as a reliable means of evaluating and certifying the Japanese proficiency of non-native speakers. At the beginning, there were approximately 7,000 examinees worldwide. In 2011, there were as many as 610,000 examinees around the globe, making JLPT the largest-scale Japanese-language test in the world.

Over time, test applicants have become more diverse, and use of JLPT results has expanded from skill measurement to include employment screening and evaluation for promotions and pay raises as well as use as a form of qualification.

N1 is the most difficult level.

Although I passed N2 (by a super small margin) in 2011, I wasn’t feeling very confident when I enrolled for the N1 course. I was completely terrified on the first day. However, the energetic and enthusiastic teachers plus the fun students made me feel I was in the right place.

There were only 8 students in my class: 2 from the USA (including me), 1 from England, 1 from Italy, 1 from Latvia, 1 from Iran, 1 from Belgium, and 1 from Australia (in that seat order). Everyone was super motivated, and that was inspiring.

Our class was small and intimate.

Our class was small and intimate.

Like the actual exam, class was broken up into segments: 文字語彙moji goi, 文法bunpou, 読解 dokkai, and 聴解choukai (Vocabulary and kanji, grammar, reading comprehension, listening comprehension).

Every segment was tremendous help for me, but the best part that I was forced to READ.
Four hours straight, twenty hours a week of strategy lessons and practice questions forced me to get over my inhibitions, looking for the meanings of the passages rather than the reading of every single unfamiliar character. The course really changed my outlook on Japanese, and hard work paid off because the first and final practice exams revealed that my reading comprehension score rose by 42%!!! (Albeit you can imagine it was miserable to begin with.)

As a student of Japanese and as a Shansi Fellow, my time at KAI was really an invaluable experience. Now I have new friends from AND I can read without freaking out! (Still need to use dictionaries though.)

Sadly after one week I’m already beginning to forget some of the difficult grammar patterns and words that appear mostly in written works… Luckily I have a classmate, friend, and study partner in Tokyo! Even though I’ll start teaching English soon, I’ll try my best to keep up my studies and pass the N1 in December! これからも、私なりに頑張って生きていきます。

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The small but proud JLPT N1 class. :)

The small but proud JLPT N1 class. 🙂

Now the daily rush-hour commute into Tokyo, THAT was another “interesting” experience…

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「縁があるんだよ」: Two stories of “fated” encounters

Before I talk about my summer experiences with Japanese transportation as well as my language course, I want to take this time to talk about an important and amazing Japanese word: 縁, or en.

「縁がある」、en ga aru, or “to have en” is to have a destined connection with someone. Be it coincidence or fate, an unintended meeting has resulted in a special or 大切な relationship.

The first time I encountered this experience and the word en was when I studied at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka in 2011:

The summer between my semesters abroad, I decided to invite a Japanese friend to go see a taiko happyokai (taiko recital or concert) with performances by various classes in Kyoto’s “Taiko Center” school. At that happyokai I saw my first eisaa performance. エイサー、or Eisaa is a traditional Okinawan performance art, including dance, music, and Okinawan handheld taiko, and is the Okinawan equivalent to mainland Japan’s Bon-Odori, or “dance of Obon”. Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead, and likewise Eisaa was traditionally performed to honor the dead. Obon in Japan just ended yesterday, August 16th.

This is a sidetrack! I saw my first eisaa taiko performance, fell in love, and went on to study eisaa in Japan until after returning to Oberlin. Then for the rest of my college career I studied the Okinawan conflict with the Japanese and American governments over the US military bases and aircraft that occupy the island today. (My senior Capstone paper was on this subject!)

Still sidetracked. After seeing this concert and becoming interested in Eisaa, one day I was biking from Gaidai to my sharehouse (dorm-like apartment) and passed by a group of five or six people doing eisaa in front of Hirakata Station. Although they did not have much of an audience, I decided to double back and watch. After they finished, I decided to ask them about their activities. Long story short, from then on I befriended the members of the group, and through the leader, elementary school teacher Honda-san, met another important friend Matsumura-san, a sanshin (3-stringed snake-skinned banjo type instrument, the Okinawan shamisen) teacher who has never been seen in anything other than traditional yukata and geta (sandals). Throughout the rest of that semester Matsumura-san taught me much about Japan, Japanese language, about Okinawa, about people, and about life. He was the one who taught me about en, or a fated relationship.

If I hadn’t doubled around to speak with Honda-san and her eisaa companions, I never would have met Matsumura-san, and I would never have been able to proceed with my Okinawan research as far as I did.

Honda-san's students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Honda-san’s students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

And now for my second story. Coincidentally, it takes place around the time of Obon.

As you read in my last post, I had a rough first week in my apartment. One night after meeting a friend in Tokyo for a farewell lunch (she just finished one year of teaching for JET in Aomori), I caught the end of the Fuchinobe (town) Obon festival just to realize that the free Obirin shuttle I usually took home was no longer running. Unsure of where the public buses ran and unwilling to pay for a taxi, I decided to walk home. I’d never done it before, and was told by Lissette that it would take about 30 minutes. I was dead tired from a long day and lack of sleep (caused by trauma from the first cockroach). I wanted to fall into a bed (or some hole) rather than walk even ten minutes home.

As I was walking home feeling exhausted and lonely, I’d reached the halfway point when I heard the sound of taiko in the distance.

I was drawn to the sound of taiko like the giant, dumb bugs outside are drawn to my building’s lamps. (Cute, right?) I followed the sound down a narrow road and was shocked when it opened up to not just a temple, but an entire Obon festival with men, women, and children in yukata.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

Emotionally I’d been completely revived. I was happy and excited. Although a dancing, yukata-clad obaasan (older woman) gestured for me to join the dance, bone-deep exhaustion led me to politely decline with a wave of a hand and an apologetic bow of my head. After the very last dance (they seemed to have a “last dance” about three times), I approached the man playing the taiko to ask him about where and with whom he played. After telling him I would be teaching at Obirin for two years, he told me he had to leave but introduced me to a man who lived in the neighborhood, Suzuki-san.

After talking excitedly for a while and introducing me to others in the neighborhood (as almost everyone but me was from the neighborhood), Suzuki-san introduced me to his daughter Satomi who studied and worked in the US for about 10 years- and had also been standing right near me the entire time I was there. (I almost tried approaching her beforehand, but was too tired.) Turns out she teaches shime-daiko (small taiko) to young children every Sunday.

The Suzuki family then brought me to their house for tea and traditional snacks. I was taken in like a stray cat. Usually you should never ever go home with people you just met, but I had a sense that these two people were special, and realized I was right when I saw their beautiful and enormous traditional house, with a large yard and garden. The warm and genki Suzuki-san says he’s seventy, but looks so youthful that it’s impossible to believe. He is a retired teacher (or professor?) and likes to grow his own vegetables. His wife, Satomi-san’s mother, passed away a few years ago from illness. She was an amazing woman and a social worker who was so influential she won an award of recognition from the Japanese Minister of Welfare. They set up a small Buddhist shrine to her in their traditional Japanese tatami room, complete with a large picture, offerings, and incense. After fun conversation and feeding me yatai stand yakisoba (fried noodles), traditional snacks, and tea, they drove me home with a full bag of home-grown vegetables.

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I ate the cucumbers raw, without cutting them up or anything. The bag of popcorn was plopped into my hands by the festival’s popcorn seller without me even asking for any.

Today I visited them again and once again was filled with tea and snacks. They had a total of six different guests come in and out throughout my stay to pay respects to Satomi’s mother and to give post-Obon gifts. They took time to help me figure out my internet situation in my apartment, then sent me home with another bag of goods:  This time, canned peaches, a Madeleine cake, mini tomatoes, and an apple.

If I hadn’t missed my bus, decided to walk home, stumbled into the temple celebration, and called out to the taiko player, I wouldn’t have met and befriended such amazing people. Like two years ago, this could just have been a series of great coincidences, or it could be because of my love for taiko. Or maybe en really exists.

日本での新しい生活: The start of a new life in Japan

一人暮らし生活、スタート!

The past two weeks have been exciting because I moved into my own apartment on August 1. In my first week I ran a ton of errands: doing paperwork to change my visa, going to the immigration office in Shinagawa and waiting three hours or so to change it, buying a month-long train pass to commute to my 3-week language program, buying a pass for the train for the commute, as well as buying a ton of things for the (mostly furnished) apartment to make it as home-y as I possibly can. Needless to say my wallet has been very busy. Luckily I can withdraw from my US account using a 7-11 ATM. Thanks, 7-11!

My first few nights in the new apartment were both exciting and traumatizing. This is the first time I’ve ever lived alone. My apprehensions were not at all eased by a series of malfunctions and unpleasant surprises.

  1. 1 broken gas burner
  2. Mysterious black dots in the cupboards under the kitchen sink…??
  3. 1 broken bathroom (toilet) light (which I of course discovered at night…)
  4. 1 broken water heater (would go back-and-forth from cold to burning hot without me touching anything)
  5. 1 leaking shower
  6. COCKROACH. (So THAT’S what those dots came from…)

As you can see, while I could deal with most of the items on this list, the sixth item was my least favorite surprise. Because it got away I was so traumatized I couldn’t sleep at all on my first night. (My dust allergies also acted up, which indicated a need for cleaning. I had a field day vacuuming every inch of floor and curtains.)

Actually my (“Pepto Bismol”-colored) building is quite old. Therefore, the fact that some things might not be working should not have been too surprising. However, I was told that the apartment was checked soon before I arrived so that it would be ready for me to move in. This must not have been the case, or at least they did a poor job. Luckily, my burner, water heater, shower head, and bathroom light have been fixed by now thanks to my Obirin work contact Ebara-san, though the first week was pretty rough… I’ve also spread out a handful of insect traps under my sinks and near the bathroom, so if I see one more roach then I KNOW something is up!

One even had the nerve to show itself while Lissette, my friend Britta and I celebrated my 22nd birthday (on the 11th) by making s’mores. (We used chopsticks for sticks, saltines for graham crackers, and candles for a bonfire. It was pretty wonderful and would’ve been a perfect night had it not come out to crash the party!)

Some Bday/Housewarming Party pics:

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Britta and Lissette like their marshmallows really burnt…

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Improvising for s’mores.. with my new pillow!

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The only good side to the roach problem is that I’ve been forced to be super clean- vacuuming floors often, washing dishes right away, and closing my garbage bags every night. But still…

ANYWAY, I fell asleep on my couch for the first time last night, which must mean that I’m finally beginning to feel really at home! Also, because of the chamomile-scented insect repellent I bought, it smells really nice in here. 🙂

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My futon blanket is currently thrown on top of my suitcase for now because it’s too warm to use in this hot summer weather.

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Thank you Ken, for the fancy mirror glass toaster!

washing machine left, toilet front, shower/bathtub right

washing machine left, toilet front, shower/bathtub right

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My toilet (room) was really drab and scary, so I brightened it up! ❤

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My Oberlin blanket and my Koala’s March pillow! The pillow’s probably my favorite thing in the whole house. Thanks, Lissette!

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my low table and an assortment of Japanese books I hope to read. Oh, and a cookbook that I’ll hopefully eventually use!

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The apartment came with a ton of dishes! Some are really cute.

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So nice to have a washing machine that I don’t need to pay for! I need to hang dry my clothes though.

At this point I must say that I’m super grateful to my senpai, senior Shansi fellow Lissette for helping me move in, saving me from the giant bugs outside (and inside), and being amazing!

In the meantime, I’m commuting an hour and a half from Machida to Shin-Okubo every day for my advanced  Japanese class at KAI Language School. I’ll save that for the next post!

夏の旅の終わり: The end of summer travels (for now)

So remember that time I wished my emotions could take a break? Well, immediately afterwards my body decided that it needed a break too and totally shut down on me for a few days, starting as soon as we arrived at our friend’s place in Yokohama. That was a lovely reunion. I spent two days mostly in bed nose-blowing up a storm, but got better just in time to spend a night and day in beautiful 箱根 Hakone. Because it’s quite far from Yokohama, we didn’t do much the first day but rest, but we did stay at this nice, very old ryokan at the foot of the mountains along a very narrow, winding road and next to a stream. While it had Western beds, it also had a segment of the room with tatami floors, a low table and zaisu (low chair with no legs), as well as snacks , a hot water kettle, and tea.

our room

our room

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

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fancy nabe (hotpot) dinner!

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wearing a yukata to dinner! It was lovely except for when I accidentally dipped the sleeve in sauce while reaching for food in the nabe hotpot…

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

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the next day’s breakfast!

There were also two indoor public baths downstairs, which became private after 10pm. It was beautiful, but the water was so hot! I got out only after a few minutes to avoid getting dizzy. I’d have to go more often to get used to it.

Cue Flashback: I still remember vividly the first time I went to a public bath when I studied in Osaka during high school. It took all of my willpower to prevent a mini anxiety attack about stripping down in front of other people, including the one other American ryugakusei exchange student.

For those who aren’t aware of the custom: Before taking a bath in Japan, one is supposed to wash up with shampoo and soap, usually while sitting on a small stool. In public baths there are rows of stools and mirrors with showerheads, shampoo, and bodywash. The first time I tried cleaning myself with the showerhead, I was scolded gently by Noriko-san, a woman in my group who remains my friend today, for spraying water around and behind me. So I would not be a meiwaku (nuisance) to others, I became more conscious of bathers around me and more deliberate with the direction of the shower head.

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In the summer, Hakone is filled with blooming ajisai (hydrangea bushes).

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Pirate ship! We got to ride a red one later as part of a “course” that included this pirate ship ride, a “ropeway” ride up the mountain, a cable car ride down the mountain, and a train back to the station..

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Towards the top of Mt. Hakone near Owakudani Station, where it smells strongly of sulfur. Stores in Owakudani produce famous “black eggs”, which are boiled in volcanic waters and are said to increase longevity.

After Hakone, Ken and I returned to Yokohama for a few nights, the last during which we tried to have a nice bar-be-que on our friend Josh’s balcony (4th floor with no elevator..) only to be poured on as soon as they finally got the flame going.

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You did good, Josh! Took forever to light that tiny grill too!

Despite being unable to finish grilling, Josh saved the night by whipping up some delicious dishes in a frenzy, followed by card games conducted mostly in Japanese for our Japanese friend. I had fun teaching everyone the game BS and learning the rules of Poker. Unsurprisingly, Ken has the best Poker face! Surprisingly, he was also the best of us by far… I, on the other hand, managed to win Crazy Eights about five times total. One of my prouder achievements. 🙂

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn't grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn’t grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

After Yokohama, we stayed in Ueno for a few nights…

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

bunnies!

bunnies in the local bakery.

custard-filled Panda bread!

custard-filled Panda bread!

more animal goodies!

more animal goodies!

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together...

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together…

Okinawa's "shikuasa" juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Okinawa’s “shikuasa” juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido!

Hokkaido!

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

a mask and me.

a mask and me.

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

We only asked for a "semi-color" portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train... But it was worth it!

We only asked for a “semi-color” portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train… But it was worth it!

Ken has returned home to Australia, and I’ve moved into my new apartment. For the first time in my life, it’s time to start living on my own!