Learning Japanese – The Writing System

If you’re interested in learning Japanese, a lot of students in New York are daunted by the fact they have to speak a language that’s different grammatically, and also have to learn how to write the Japanese language. Our article (Learn Japanese NYC) teaches a bit about the differences between the three alphabets, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. It goes onto say that it’s really not that difficult to Learn Japanese, even when living in New York City. Please check out our article today to learn more about writing this wonderful language!

Learn Japanese NYC… for $10!

Are you one of those students that has always wanted to learn Japanese, but just not ready to pay the high prices to take Japanese language classes at a college in New York? Hills Learning for a limited time offers a $10 Japanese Trial Class.  This coming Friday, instead of going out to the movies or spending money at a club or bar, why not spend the earlier part of your night learning Japanese, one of the most fascinating languages in New York City?

Hills Learning is conveniently located next to Grand Central Station. Why is this good for learning Japanese? Well, after you’ve finished with the $10 trial Japanese lesson, you can attend some of the Japanese related businesses nearby, such as ramen shops and Japanese grocery stores, and of course the king of all things Japanese in New York: Kinokuniya Bookstores, located right next to Bryant Park.

So what are you waiting for? Come enjoy your Friday night with Hills Learning and learn Japanese today!

A Great Sushi Restaurant Next to St Marks Place

I went to a very good sushi restaurant the other day. I found it off the beaten path, at St. Mark’s Place, the unofficial Japan Town of New York. The restaurant was quaint, affordable (a sushi dollar menu with a wide variety of sushi!), and also had pitchers of Kirin for around $17. Definitely a good break from the typical New York overly expensive and not so delicious sushi experience.

The sushi restaurant was called “NORI”, if you google “nori sushi nyc” this restaurant will come up. The website is http://www.norinyc.com/

Japanese Proficiency Test – What’s Changed and How to Handle It

Whether you’re a new student for the Japanese Proficiency Exam or have taken it in the past, the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in 2010 has changed. Consequently, how to study and handle the exam has also changed.  This article will discuss the history of the exam and why changes were brought about, what’s new about the Japanese Proficiency Test for 2010, and how to best study to pass the JLPT.

The reason why the test was changed in 2010 was test takers and school administrators were complaining that the exam wasn’t adequate. What kind of exam, they wondered, measures language ability without any spoken component to it? Although there is still no speaking contained in the Japanese Proficiency Exam, it was rumoured that the exam’s setup was getting oboselete and predictable. The Japanese authorities responded with a new test.

The main changes in the exam are as follows:

2009 – there were 4 levels of the Japanese Proficiency Exam: 1-kyu, 2-kyu, 3-kyu, and 4-kyu. 1-kyu represents the highest level, “fluency” in the Japanese language. 1-kyu consists of obscure Japanese grammar patterns, insanely hard reading passages, and listening sections that sometimes make you wonder if the language you heard was actually Japanese. 4-kyu is the entry level part of the exam, “beginner.”

2010 – 5 levels 1-kyu, 2-kyu, 3-kyu, 4-kyu, 5-kyu. Here’s what happened with each level of the JLPT:

1-kyu got harder. This is because a lot of university students, embassy applicants, translators, etc. were mastering the exam at a faster rate. The Japanese government responded by making the content of 1-kyu harder.

2-kyu stays the same. This is actually very good for potential job seekers and ambitious employees who want to work in a Japanese company. 2-kyu represents “business fluency” and while studying to pass the 2-kyu level, students actually learn quite a lot of useful Japanese in the process.

3-kyu – a new level. The jump between the old 2-kyu and 3-kyu was too great, so there is now a new level of the Japanese proficiency exam. “intemediate”

4-kyu is the old 3-kyu level. Sorry 3-kyu holders, your level of Japanese has just been brought down a level.

5-kyu is the old 4-kyu level. Sorry 4-kyu holders, “.

The scoring system has changed. Gone are the days where test takers can get 100 on reading and vocabulary, a 50 on listening, and still pass the test with flying colors. Now every section needs a passing score to get a passing grade on the exam.

So for each level:

1-kyu you’ll need to get a 70% on the Vocabulary Section, Listening Section, and Reading / Grammar Sections. If you score below a 70 on any of these sections, you fail the exam.

2-kyu, 3-kyu, 4-kyu, and 5-kyu you’ll need to get a 60% “.

With each drop in difficulty, the length of the test shrinks. The vocabulary, reading, and listening sections also get easier.

What this means When studying for the Japanese Proficiency Test going forward, all test takers must be more cognizant of developing all their language skills. If a test taker fails to do the Reading, Listening, or vocab recognition sections properly, they fail the test overall.

Therefore when studying, please purchase a listening book, as well as a reading book and a grammar book. Look for the publishers Japan Times or ALC, both companies have great reputations in Japan, and write quite useful series. Any specific questions please feel free to ask on this article.

PS – If you haven’t started studying, please start now! Create a regiment, prepare to study at least 2 hours a week, and aim for on average 3 to 4 hours per week. The Japanese Proficiency Exam in New York City (and the rest of the U.S.) will happen less than 6 months from now, in December.

Japan Town in New York? Why, it’s St. Marks Place

A lot of our readers and students of the Japanese language have all been to “Japan Town” in New York City. However, if you look on a map or read a guidebook, there’s no official listing of Japan Town in New York. There’s definitely a Chinatown and Koreatown (Koreatown is actually written on 32nd street) so where’s the Japan Town? And why has it been called that?

The “where” is easy to explain. St. Marks Place is actually another term for East 8th Street. The “Japan Town” location is centered between 2nd ave and 3rd ave, if you’re going to take the subway, take the 6 to Astor Place or the R or W to 8th Ave NYU. Then walk east along East 8th Street or St. Marks Place and you’ll come across a street loaded with Japanese goodness.

Although not nearly as conspicuous as Chinatown or Koreatown, Japan Town does have it’s own charm and feel. Every sign might not be in Japanese, but there are plenty of good yakitori, izakaya, sushi, ramen, and other Japanese restaurants to lure in the passerby.  Before you get to 2nd avenue on the north side of the street don’t forget to stop and take a look inside the JAS Mart, a small little convenience store that sells foods and other articles that are uniquely Japanese.

The ambiance of  St. Marks Place though is not really reflective of Japan. Although Japanese are lured to the area due to Izakaya’s, Yakitori Places, and of course the ever famous and popular Setagaya Ramen, the area’s main demographics seem to have more of an NYU feel. Lots of young close to graduation college students mix with asians of all backgrounds to make you feel like you’re more in Roppongi than Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Despite the contradictions, anyone interested in Japanese language or culture in New York should visit Japan Town at least once. The food might not be Tokyo quality, and the karaoke (the popular Sing-Sing) might not be the best price around, but it does feel like a New York version of Japan. And who knows, 日本語で話しかけたら誰か答えてもらうかもしれない!

WIT Life #93: サンフランシスコの日本町

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

My interpreting travels bring me to San Francisco this time, and I couldn’t leave without paying a visit to Japantown.  I hadn’t been there in a couple of years, but I clearly remembered  the array of restaurants, souvenir shops and an onsen-like spa I once had a soak in.  I went with a friend who was craving something sweet and wanted a recommendation, so I suggested we get 白玉汁粉 (shiratama shiruko), one of my favorite Japanese desserts following ぜんざい (zenzai).  We went to Kissako Tea where we were served by Hiro and Koji, pretending to be a charming couple. .

Kissako also had a nice selection of mochi  (pictured left), including strawberry, orange and lima bean, but I wasn’t blown away so didn’t sample any.  I had heard of Benkyodo, a mochi specialty shop where it is handmade and there is more variety, but they are not open on Sundays.  Something to be tried on another trip…

After we satisfied our sweet tooth with the shiratama shiruko washed down by green tea, we took a walk around the mall which is a mix of places with yukatas and other Japanese clothing, a fairly large Kinokuniya, purikura booths, and stores selling Sanrio products.

Speaking of Sanrio, there was an interesting article in the NYT the other day called “In Search of Adorable,” regarding the company’s strategy in finding a character to replace the legendary Hello Kitty who has dwindled in popularity at age 36.  The article cites that “Hello Kitty lost her long-held spot as Japan’s top-grossing character in 2002 and has never recovered,” something surprising considering how you see her plastered everywhere both here and at home (she is beaten out by Anpanman!).  However, the article discusses that part of her problem might have been this very overexposure.

Somehow replacement candidates such as the pink dalmation Spottie Dottie and the baby panda Pandapple have not been able to capture the same kind of merchandising magic as Hello Kitty, so it is back to the drawing board for Sanrio.  Who will be their next character to take the world by storm?

The JLPT in 2010

So it’s about that time of year where students are thinking about and preparing for the JLPT (The Japanese Proficiency Exam). Preparing for the exam this year will be different than last year, there have been a lot of changes to the exam. This article explores the Japanese proficiency exam with personal accounts of past failures and successes, and how this relates to the JLPT 2010.

For those readers who are not sure what I’m talking about by the “1-kyu” in the title of this article, there are 5 levels of the Japanese proficiency exam in 2010. 5-kyu is the beginner level, where as 1-kyu is the highest level.

Last year’s 1-kyu exam was quite difficult. It’s actually rumored that the Japanese proficiency exam is harder every “odd year”, and easier on the even years. The listening section in particular on the 1-kyu exam was much more difficult than the practice listening sections in textbooks, even though they tried to make it funny and interesting by adding an anime scene at the end of the test. The grammar section was also more difficult than it needed to be, having a variety of grammar structures included from the 2-kyu, and probably even 3-kyu structures.

The point of talking about the 1-kyu 2009 before moving to the JLPT and 1-kyu 2010 is don’t be textbook focused in your studies. The 1-kyu exam has a wide variety of 2-kyu grammar, insanely hard listening sections, and readings that fit much better in with a newspaper than a typical “1-kyu readings book.” When studying textbooks, you should use them to memorize grammar patterns and how the listening questions are structured. Then for real hard preparation for 1-kyu immerse yourself in Japanese by reading newspapers and novels, listening to Japanese podcasts and music, and of course watching movies and dramas.

Now for the rest of the Japanese test takers (5-kyu to 2-kyu) textbook focused studying is probably your best bet. Also if you’re really serious find a Japanese teacher who can teach you, check your progress, and also have enough English background to translate properly for you. Understanding the grammar patterns, especially with their English applications, makes it easier to memorize what you need to know and do well on the exam.

So in short, for 1-kyu studiers please don’t forget your real world language resources for studying Japanese. This might also be a good lesson for the other levels as well, although probably less so. For 2-kyu and below, focusing on the textbooks for the JLPT and having a teacher / Japanese class you’re attending should be a recipe for success.

PS – PLEASE BE AWARE if you’re reading this article now and you haven’t started studying for the JLPT, you must start studying asap. Build a regiment, study every weekend or at least 2-3 times a week, and don’t forget to include in your studies reading, vocab, and listening.

WIT Life #87: Tokyo Vice – Cultural Icon

WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

The other night I had the pleasure of meeting the author Jake Adelstein (pictured here on the Daily Show) who wrote the sensational book Tokyo Vice, the story of his time as a crime reporter in Japan.  This absorbing memoir traces his path from Sophia University student to full-time reporter at the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, a notable feat for a foreigner.  He spent 12 years covering the underbelly of Japan, and as expected the bulk of his talk concentrated on the yakuza.

He discussed how this Japanese mafia is known as a second police force, or a necessary evil (必要な悪 or hitsuyou na aku). As tracked by the police they number 86,000 and have 986 front companies in Tokyo.  In Japan, there were no organized crime laws until 1992, and even now there is limited wiretapping and no witness protection/relocation, quite different from the States in this respect.  Adelstein also highlighted other interesting cultural differences such as the fact that there are even yakuza fan magazines, which have articles profiling members as well as photo essay series with them as subjects!  As a crime reporter an important aspect of his job was reading these publications to keep up-to-date on the yakuza world.

Several questions from the audience focused on the collusion between Japanese corporations and the yakuza, and Adelstein said that it was highly possible that many companies cooperate with one yakuza group to protect them from others.  Also, ex-yakuza are often hired as corporate consultants.   This is a timely topic considering the speculation that Fujitsu’s former President  was ousted because of alleged gangster ties.  According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, it has been confirmed that this has been taken to court and is currently being battled over.

The Vocabulary of Japanese Food – Sweet Potatoes

(For more information on where these recipes came from and more Japanese cooking vocabulary, check out my previous posts for Yellowtail Teriyaki, Cashew Chicken, Roast Chinjao, and Tonkatsu!)

Did you read about Fall foods in Japan yet? If you have, you’ll notice that the first food listed is sweet potatoes. Have you ever wondered how to make them into a dessert, Japanese style? Read on and learn how!

スイートポテト – Sweet Potatoes

Yield: 4 servings


English Japanese
400 g sweet potatoes (0.88 lb or 14.1 oz) さつまいも 400g
32 g butter (about 2.5 Tbsp) バター 32g
60 g granulated sugar (about 1/3 cup) グラニュー糖 60g
4 Tbsp whole milk 牛乳 大さじ4
Dash of salt 塩 少々
2 egg yolks (divided) 卵黄 1個分+1個分
1 Tbsp dark rum ラム酒 大さじ1
A little bit of water 水 少々


Preheat oven to 180°C (356°F). Peel the sweet potatoes, then cut into rounds 3 cm in width. Place the sliced potatoes into a bowl of water as you cut them, then drain when ready to proceed to the next step.

Fill a saucepan with plenty of water, then put in the potatoes and heat until the water is boiling. When they can be easily pierced with a chopstick or fork, remove from heat and drain the hot water.

While the potatoes are still hot in the drained saucepan, quickly crush them until they are broken up into small pieces. Add the 32 g of butter and mix well. Then add the 4 Tbsp of milk, 60 g granulated sugar, and salt, then heat on low heat. While stirring constantly, let the moisture evaporate, and mash until the potatoes become smooth.

Quickly cool the potatoes by placing the hot saucepan into a bowl of ice water. When they have cooled a bit, add one of the egg yolks and 1 Tbsp rum, then mix well.

Lay down some parchment paper on a flat surface like a counter or table. Divide the sweet potato dough into four equal sections and place on the paper. Form each into a football-like shape by wrapping them in the parchment, then using a dish towel on the outside of the wrapper to manipulate the hot dough.

In a small bowl, put in the other egg yolk and add a little water, then mix. Place the football-shaped sweet potatoes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, then lightly brush the tops with the egg mixture.

Put the baking sheet on the top rack in the oven, which should be between 180-200°C (356-392°F). For two potato shapes, bake for 15-20 minutes. For 4, bake for 20-25 minutes. When the tops dry out after baking, take the potatoes out of the oven and brush with the egg mixture once more. Then put them back in the oven for 2-3 minutes. When the tops have browned, they are ready to be taken out of the oven and served.

(Note: Japanese dessert sweet potatoes are often served with a bit of honey on top.)


Japanese Romaji Meaning
はかり hakari Scale (ie. Cooking scale)
ピーラー piiraa Vegetable peeler
オーブン oobun Oven
オーブンシート oobun shiito Parchment paper
ふきん fukin Dish towel; dish rag
ハケ hake Brush (here, refers to a cooking or pastry brush)
バター bataa Butter
牛乳 gyuunyuu Milk
卵黄 ranou Egg yolk(s)
たっぷり tappuri Fully; amply; generously
細かい komakai Small; fine
つぶす tsubusu To crush; smash; mash
氷水 koori mizu Ice water
敷く shiku To spread; lay out
生地 kiji Dough
溶きほぐす toki-hogusu To scramble (an egg)
表面 hyoumen The surface; face; ouside; exterior
上段 joudan The upper row, tier, step, or rack

Sakura Mochi – Japanese Sweets – TOKYO Style

Hi All, I promised to have this entry ready a few weeks ago. I’m so sorry for the delay. You know how some things don’t go as planned. But, without further ado…

Sakura (桜), cherry blossom trees, are the true sign of spring in Japan and their beauty has been revered by the Japanese for centuries. Each year, when the trees blossom, millions sit under their shade to eat, drink and make merry. The blossoms and leaves themselves are edible and are used in some traditional Japanese dishes.

Last week, I made Kantou style (Tokyo style) sakura mochi, a light pink, mochi pancake filled with sweet red beans, anko (あんこ), and traditionally wrapped in a preserved sakura leaf. Not being in Japan, I couldn’t find the sakura leaf, so I got a little inventive and tried a shiso leaf, or ohba, the green leaf with a light refreshing minty, herbal taste that you usually find in sushi. I loved it! But not everyone else did. Try this recipe yourself, and let me know if you like the ohba taste 😉

1/3 cup of mochiko (rice flour)
1 cup of water
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of sugar
red food coloring
about a cup of anko (sweet red bean paste)
cooking oil spray
pack of ohba

1) Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
2) Stir in water.
3) Add a couple of drops of food coloring to turn the mixture pink.
4) Heat pan over a medium heat, and spray lightly with the cooking oil spray.
5) Add a couple of spoonfuls of the mixture to the pan. You can either make oval-shaped pancakes or more round pancakes. This will determine the final shape of the mochi treat.
6) Cook for a few minutes on both sides. The mochi pancake will start to turn slightly translucent as it cooks. This recipe makes about 15 pancakes.
7) As you finish the pancakes, set them aside on a plate to cool.
8) Portion out small balls of anko on a separate plate.
9) Roll the anko balls into the mochi pancakes. There are two ways to roll the anko into the mochi.

  • ONE: Using an oval-shaped pancake, you can roll the anko ball into the pancake so that it looks like a tube.
  • TWO: Using a round-shaped pancake, you can fold the pancake in half over the anko ball so that it looks like a little taco.

10) Roll the ohba, shiso leaf, around the tube or taco. You may have to pinch the leaf to break the stem so that the leaf will stay folded over.

Then, ENJOY!