Hanami in Japan

cherry-blossoms1

Spring is here and the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Or, at least so I am told. I moved from Tokyo to the warmer climate here in Miyakojima (a small island south west of Okinawa) and our few cherry blossoms or sakura bloomed in January. On the mainland however, the trees are in bloom and people, with cameras in hand are venturing out for one of the largest events in Japan, Hanami.

Hanami (花見) simply means “flower viewing” in English. 花, pronounced “hana” means “flower” and 見, pronounced “mi” is the character for “see” or “view”. So basically hanami is the activity of viewing flowers. It is important to mention that hanami is usually only used when talking about cherry blossoms or sakura (桜). For instance you wouldn’t use the word hanami to view roses.

Hanami is an event that has been practiced for many many years and holds a great deal of meaning for the Japanese culture. The sakura (cherry blossom), which blooms suddenly and beautifully only blooms for a period of a couple of days and then falls to the ground. Especially in the days of the samurai, sakura was was a symbol for how beautiful and short life really is.

In modern day Japan, hanami has lost none of it’s popularity, and people still gather in large numbers for this amazing event. Probably the most common way to celebrate hanami is for groups of friends to gather for picnics and drinking under the cherry blossoms. The meaning itself however, seems to have changed from a reflection of life to more of an event for social gathering and drinking.

For those who are planning to visit Japan, sakura generally bloom from late March to mid April depending on the weather. It only last for a few days and comes with the first warm days for spring, so it can be somewhat hard to time. It is one of the most beautiful times of the year in Japan and definitely worth the trying for!

Japanese words

  • cherry blossom- 桜 さくら
  • flower viewing- 花見 はなみ
  • to bloom- 咲く さく

Gaining Fluency with Japanese Words

japanese-fluency

When I was studying Japanese in Japan, people used to ask me what did I think the most important part of learning Japanese was? If I could only study one thing what would it be? My answer, vocabulary. The more Japanese words you know the better you will be able to understand the conversation. Even if you don’t understand the grammar, you can convey your general meaning if you know the right Japanese words. However, the way that you study Japanese words are just as important. There are two important methods to gaining fluency with Japanese words. The first is the way you study the words. The second is the way you practice them.

Now I mentioned above that a large vocabulary is probably the most important aspect to speaking the Japanese language. It is even better if you can study them in a way that allows you to learn grammatical structures at the same time. The way to do this is to study words in context. Doing so will help you learn how the word is used and also give you practice learning related words and different types of sentence structures. I also find that learning words in context help me remember them quicker because I am creating a small story in my head rather than just trying to memorize.

The second part of learning words is to use them again and again. In college I would spend a night cramming to learn all the words before a test to get a high score. Once the test was over and so the practice also stopped, then the words were forgotten. In order to fully lock Japanese words into your memory, you need to use them over and over again. This means that you will need to continuously review new material until you know it very well. A program like Mnemosyne, a flash card program that tracks how well you remember words can be very helpful for this. Of course the best way to do review words is to use them in conversation. This will allow you to put them into context and to make sure you can both hear them and speak them.

To Learn or Not to Learn Kanji?

kanji

Without a doubt the most difficult part of learning Japanese is learning kanji. There are over 2000 kanji in the Japanese language and many of them are complex and look very similar to one another. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that each kanji can be read differently depending on the way it is used in a sentence. Because of this, learning to read and write kanji will take much more time to master than the rest of the language. So the question is should you spend the time to learn it or not?

I think this the answer really depends on your reasons for learning Japanese and how much time you plan to devote to it. If you are learning Japanese to live or work  there for a short time or plan to travel there for vacation, then you probably don’t need to learn more than a few very basic kanji. It’s not that learning the kanji won’t help you, but the time you will need to spend learning them won’t be worth the value you will get if you are only visiting Japan for a short time.

For those who who plan to master the Japanese language, live in Japan for more than a year, and especially for those who plan to seek work in Japan, then learning kanji is very important. It is also pretty much required for the majority of jobs in Japan. Since most writing is now done in electronic form (computers) you don’t necessarily need to be able to write them, but you do need to be able to read them. Most documents and government forms are written using kanji. If you can’t read them then you will have to depend on someone else to translate it for you. Not too mention if you can’t read kanji you will have to sign contracts for things like apartments and cell phones without knowing what they really say.

Once we learn to read and write we take these abilities as granted, but they are very important to live and function in society. Having lived in Japan now for a while I see just how important reading is. I also wish I would have spent more time studying kanji when I was I college. So if you are planning to learn kanji I recommend that you start as soon as possible and continue to study at a steady pace. It will take some time, but the benefits are well worth it. The positive side of learning kanji is that it is easier to remember Japanese words once you learn the corresponding kanji.

Japanese Phrases and Greetings

japanese-phrases

The Japanese words you know the better you will be able to speak Japanese. This is also true of Japanese phrases. Learning a number of common Japanese phrases will make it much easier to communicate. The reason for this is that the most common Japanese phrases are used over and over again in basically the same order. For instance, when you meet someone for the first time the conversation will consists of mostly a set dialogue. I highly recommend that you find yourself a good Japanese conversational phrase book. If possible, choose one that also contains phone conversations as the language is slightly different.


  • P1: こんにちは (good afternoon)
  • P2: こんにちは     (good afternoon)
  • P1: はじめまして (nice to meet you)
  • P2: はじえまして (nice to meet you)
  • P1: わたしは (insert name)です (my name is —-)
  • P2: わたしは (insert name) です   (my name is —-)
  • P1: よろしくおねがいします (please treat me well)
  • P2: よろしくおねがいします    (please treat me well)

Below I have listed some common Japanese phrases. While learning these will not mae you fluent in Japanese, they should help you converse in basic conversations. You can also click on the following link for a list of common Japanese words or a list of over 1000 Japanese words and Kanji.

Common Japanese Phrases

English romaji Hiragana
Japanese Greetings
Good morning ohayou gozaimasu おはようございます
Good afternoon konnichiwa こんにちは
Good evening konnbanwa こんばんは
How are you? ogenki desu ka おげんきですか
I’m doing well, I’m fine genki desu yo げんきですよ
See you later mata ato de またあとで
See you tomorrow mata ashita またあした
Thank you arigatou gozaimasu ありがとうございます
No problem, don’t mention it douitashimashite どういたしまして
Take care odaiji ni おだいじに
It’s nice to meet you hajimemashite はじめまして
I’m (name) (name) desu —です
Please treat me well yoroshiku onegaishimasu よろしくおねがいします
excuse me, sorry sumimasen すみません
sorry gomen nasai ごめんなさい
Getting Around
Where is train station Eki wa doko desu ka えきはどこですか
How much is this kore wa ikura desu ka これはいくらですか
I want to go to — — ni ikitai desu — にいきたいです
I would like (to buy) this please kore onegaishimasu これおねがいします
Where is the bathroom otearai wa doko desu ka おてあらいはどこですか
where is a phone denwa wa doko desu ka でんわはどこですか
Can I get a water please omizu kudasai おみずください
Can I get —- — kudasai —ください
Please speak more slowly motto yukkuri hanashite kudasai もっとゆっくりはなしてください
Can you please repeat it mou ichido itte kudasai もういちどいってください