Part Three: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

In lesson one we covered basic concepts of Japanese hiragana writing and in lesson two we covered some more advanced features.  Today, we’ll focus more on how to learn hiragana.

If you’re studying Japanese, hiragana is a “learn once, learn early, use often” feature of the language.  The sooner you make the leap, the better.  I often meet beginning Japanese students who lament having to learn the 40+ characters (and the modifications), but once you’ve broken past that barrier, a lot of things opening up in Japanese.

I have dabbled in a number of languages over the years including Sanskrit, Korean, ancient Greek and of course Japanese and each one requires learning a new script, but there are certain patterns in study that help to adapt to a new script relatively quickly:

  • Read – reading words is the best way to get familiar with a new script.  If you find example words, or example sentences, read them, pick them apart in your mind and figure out how to pronounce it.  It’s a fun mental exercise, but also it just gets easier and easier over time.
  • Write – writing isn’t as useful as reading a new script, but it’s a good skill to adopt early to develop good habits, especially good handwriting.

I often see new students try to learn reading and writing at the same time, but it becomes a drag, and people get discouraged.  I believe they are two important, but not necessarily related skills, and of the two, reading is the one you should prioritize first with writing as a close second.

Further, people will spend money on smartphone apps to practice their handwriting, but they don’t really seem to accurate capture the motor skills necessary to write.  Instead, it would be better to download and print Japanese essay paper (genkōyōshi 原稿用紙) and just use that instead.¹  Just do an image search for 原稿用紙 and you’ll see plenty of options.

One of my favorite sources for me to practice reading Japanese hiragana was the Graded Reader series by White Rabbit Press.  These are now available as smart-phone apps, but I used them back when they were just printed books, and starting with the lowest level, I soon found I could follow the hiragana well enough.

From there, I delved into Japanese manga, and watching TV.  Neither was easy, but it didn’t take long to pick out and get used to the hiragana because they’re just so consistent.

As for writing, there are many such workbooks available, but I liked Kodansha’s Hiragana Workbook: A Step-By-Step Approach to Basic Japanese Writing. However, other such books are probably just as good.

Once you’ve gotten use to hiragana, learning katakana is worth investing the time, but don’t be afraid to branch out into kanji either.  I’ll cover that in a future post.

Good luck!  がんばって!

¹ Quick reminder: Japanese is often written from top to bottom, and right to left.  This will make more sense if you use proper Japanese-style practice paper.

Spring Drowsiness

pink flowers on trees
Photo by Oleg Magni on

Recently, my wife and I were talking about how lately we’ve been feeling extra drowsy and lethargic, and she reminded me of a famous Chinese poem from the Tang Dynasty that is often quoted in Japanese culture as a figure of speech:

shunmin akatsuki wo oboezu

This phrase can be loosely translated as “while sleeping through the Spring morning”.

The original poem, titled “Spring Dawn” (春曉 Chūn Xiǎo) was composed by Chinese poet Mèng Hàorán (689/691–740, 孟浩然) in the Tang Dynasty. In Japanese he was called mōkōnen.  The original poem is:

春眠不覺曉   Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo
處處聞啼鳥。chùchù wén tíniǎo
夜來風雨聲,Yè lái fēngyǔ shēng
花落知多少。Huā luò zhī duōshǎo

Further, in Japanese this is translated as:

春眠暁を覚えず shunmin akatsuki wo oboezu
処処に啼鳥と聞く sho sho ni teichō to kiku
夜来風雨の声 yarai fūu no koe
花落つること hana otsuru koto
知んぬ多少ぞ shinnu tashōzo

But most people in Japan only know the first line, and that is enough to evoke the popular image of a hazy, lazy Spring morning. Hence, it is often quoted as a phrase.

In English, one translation I’ve seen (among others) is:

I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn,
From everywhere I heard the cry of birds.
That night the sound of wind and rain had come,
Who knows how many petals then had fallen?

After all the craziness of winter holidays, getting through snow storms and being shut in at home, it’s so nice to finally relax with warm weather, sunlight and seeing Nature wake up again! No wonder people get drowsy in Spring! 🙂

1 The Tang Dynasty, in addition to being one of the most powerful and dynamic in Chinese history, had a huge, huge impact on Japanese culture, especially during the Nara and Heian Period. The court aristocracy of Kyoto was deeply influenced by cultural trends in Tang Dynasty China, as was Buddhism at the time (and even beyond).

Even Cherry Blossoms Get Old

Recently, I found this post on Twitter:

The haiku in question, written by the famous poet Kobayashi Issa, reads as:

aru toki ha hana no miyako ni mo aki nikeri

I think there’s a powerful truth to this poem, even if it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek too: even the most pleasant joyous things we experience in our lives get old.

I like a good pizza, but if I eat pizza every day, I will get tired of it.  I like playing old-school video games, but if I play them all the time, I get burned out and my body doesn’t feel good since I’ve been sitting too long.  The thrills of life get old.

Anything we enjoy in life is best done in moderation, and oftentimes it’s best to let go if the amount of effort put into it is not worth the return.  It’s easy to forget this when you’re deep in the weeds, so take a minute to step back, breathe deep and take stock.

Life is short, and it’s important to make good use of one’s time before one goes old and too feeble to do anything about it anymore.

P.S.  I have two plum trees outside my door, and I love it when they blossom, but then I get annoyed by all the garbage they leave behind when the blossoms fall.  I suppose that’s a related metaphor, too.  ;p

P.P.S.  I have been to Chion-in temple above in the past a couple times and it is still dear to me in many ways.  More on that in a future post.

Using Tarokka Decks in Dungeons and Dragons

Photo by Alina Vilchenko on

Recently, my daughter’s D&D campaign had concluded a year-long story, and after taking a few weeks off to do other things, we started it back up recently with a new story.  This time I was struggling to decide what kind of story I wanted to do for her, so I decided to let the Fates decide using a Tarokka Deck from the Curse of Strahd adventure.¹

The Tarokka Deck is an in-game prop that looks similar to a Tarot deck, but is more thematic to the adventure.  It can also be used to play a card game (rules included in the package).  The Curse of Strahd adventure guide provides some rules about how to use a Tarokka Deck as a way of telling fortunes for the players, but really this is just a way to randomize certain points of the campaign so it’s a different adventure each time.

I wanted to do something similar for my daughter’s campaign so I created an adventure hook where she encountered some itinerant Vistani² at a nearby encampment, and she had her fortune told by the elder Vistani matriarch as a kind of friendly, good-will gesture.

I adapted the ritual outlined in Curse of Strahd and laid out the cards like so:

  1. left card (from the main deck) – the character’s past
  2. top card (from the main deck) – the character’s current situation
  3. right card (from the main deck) – something in the near future
  4. bottom card (from the separate high-card deck) – something the character wants
  5. middle card (from the separate, high-card deck) – the outcome

My daughter did all that and came up with a “fortune” that … with some creative interpretation on my part, managed to build a cohesive history of the character, and a basic outline of her next adventure.  It worked well because it was a fun, mildly spooky moment, and unbeknownst to her, it let me generate a skeleton framework for her next campaign and allow me to fill in the rest later.

Even if you don’t own the Tarokka Deck, Curse of Strahd and other resources show how to make your own “deck” using a normal pack of playing cards and mapping the suit and number to the same cards in Tarokka.  From there, you just need to drum up an elaborate ritual to “tell the party’s fortune” and let them basically pick their new adventure.  😀

¹ I own both but haven’t actually been able to use either one for their intended purpose yet.  The Curse of Strahd is much too dark of an adventure for my daughter’s campaign, so I am saving it for other adult campaigns in the future.

² Vistani in Dungeons and Dragons are a bit of a awkward subject due to their stereotyping of real life Romani people, but at the same time they fulfill an interesting niche in Dungeons and Dragons lore.  I tried to paint a more positive image of the Vistani from what I knew of Romani culture (emphasize Indian heritage, deemphasize negative stereotypes) while maintaining an aura of mystery thanks to the Vistani’s planar-travelling ability.  I hope it worked.

Buddhism and the Parable of the Two Rivers


Since this week is the Japanese-Buddhist holiday of Ohigan (lit. “other shore” お彼岸), I wanted to share a famous parable in the “Pure Land” Buddhist tradition, written by a 7th century Chinese monk named Shan-dao (善導 613-681).  This is usually called the Parable of the Two Rivers and the White Path.  You can find translations of it here and here among other places.  This is a translation by the late Rev. Hisao Inagaki:

Suppose a man is traveling a hundred thousand li toward the west. On the way, he suddenly comes upon two rivers: one is a river of fire that extends southward, and the other is a river of water that extends northward. The two rivers are each a hundred paces wide and unfathomably deep, extending endlessly to the north and south. Where they meet, there is a white path, four or five inches wide. This path is a hundred paces long from the east bank to the west. The waves of the water splash and the flames of the fire burn the path. The waves and flames alternate without ceasing.

This traveler has already journeyed far into the open plain where there is no one to be found. Suddenly, there appear many bandits and vicious beasts. Seeing him alone, they approach competing with each other to kill him. Afraid of death, he at once runs to the west. When he suddenly sees this great river, he says to himself, “This river extends endlessly to the south and to the north. I see a white path in the middle, but it is extremely narrow. Although the two banks are close to each other, how can I get across? Undoubtedly, I shall die this day. When I turn round to return, I see bandits and vicious beasts coming closer and closer. If I try to run toward the south or north, I see vicious beasts and poisonous insects vie with each other to attack me. If I seek the path to the west, I will certainly fall into one of the two rivers of water and fire.

His horror at this moment is beyond expression. So he thinks to himself, “If I turn back now, I shall die; if I stay, I shall die; if I go forward, I shall die, too. Since I cannot escape death in any way, I would rather follow this path. Because there is a path, it must be possible to cross the rivers.”

When this thought occurs to him, he suddenly hears a voice from the eastern bank urging him, “Take this path with firm resolution. There is no danger of death. If you stay there, you will die.” Again, he hears another voice from the western bank calling to him, “Come at once single-heartedly with right mindfulness. I will protect you. Do not fear that you may fall into the calamities of water or fire.” Since the traveler hears this voice urging him from the bank and the calling from the other, he resolutely, body and soul, takes the path and proceeds at once without doubt or apprehension.

As he takes a step or two, he hears the voices of the bandits on the eastern bank, “Come back! That path is treacherous. You cannot cross it. Undoubtedly, you are sure to die. We have no evil intentions in pursuing you.” Though hearing the calling voices, this person does not even look back. As he proceeds straight on this path with singleness of heart, he, in no time, reaches the western bank and is now free from all danger. There he meets his good friend, and his joy knows no end. This is the parable.

Commentaries on this parable are pretty consistent in that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, represents the voice on this shore urging the man to cross via the white path, while the voice on the other side is Amitabha Buddha inviting the man to cross to safety.  The monsters, bandits and such are the hassles of life, while the river of fire represents rage, anger, aversion, and the turbulent waters represent desire, craving, or some variations thereof.

But for me, there’s even more to this parable.  Buddhism, across all sects, frequently uses the analogy, originally from an ancient sutra called the Sutta of the Simile of the Water Snake, of a raft crossing one short to another.  The Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) are the raft, this shore represents our mundane existence and all the strife, frustrations and calamities that come with it.  The other shore represents the peace of mind and contentment that come with Enlightenment (or even just following the Buddhist path in a lesser sense).

Further, the Parable of the Two Rivers seems to conflate the Other Shore with the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha.  Is the Pure Land just a metaphor for awakening, and if so, does Amitabha Buddha represent the Dharma itself?  Or, is being reborn in the Pure Land essentially the same as reaching Enlightenment (by virtue of the Pure Land being so conducive to the path)?  Or maybe both?

This and many more thoughts during the Ohigan season… 🙂

Namo Shakyamuni Buddha
Namo Amitabha Buddha

Gone Before You Know It

bloom blooming blur branch
Photo by Tookapic on

Now that the miserable long winter here in the Pacific Northwest is becoming a faded memory (not to mention unusually persistent this year), Spring is finally here!  At times like these I love to go back and re-read poems from the famous Japanese anthology, the Hyakunin Isshu.

In particular, one of my favorite is this poem:

久方の Hisakata no
光のどけき hikari no dokeki
春の日に haru no hi ni
しづ心なく shizu gokoro naku
花のちるらむ hana no chiruran

Which Professor Mostow’s translates in Pictures of the Heart as:

In these spring days
with the tranquil light encompassing
The four directions
why should the blossoms scatter
with uneasy hearts?

The last two lines in particular bear particular attention because while the poem is a celebration of Spring in many ways, it also has a bittersweet tone to it because the blossoms are gone before you know it.  I don’t know if it fully comes out in the English translation, but it definitely seems to come out in Japanese.

Life is really short, and like the blossoms of Spring, it has a lot of pretty and wonderful things in it, but we’re so busy plodding along, going about our business, that we don’t take the time to appreciate them because we feel there’s always tomorrow.  However, the poem reminds us that there may not be a tomorrow.

Further, if I put on my Buddhist hat, it’s also reminder that since life is short, getting hung up on all the pretty things in life might not always be worth it either.  Like the blossoms, I am gradually withering and getting older, and time is not something to squander.  I need to pick my battles, determine what matters most to me, and not get distracted by the rest.

Since today happens to be the Buddhist holiday in Japan of Ohigan, when the seasons are more mild and people can afford the time to renew their commitment to the Buddhist path, it’s also a great time to take stock of these things while getting some much needed vitamin D.

Namo Shakyamuni Buddha
Namo Amitabha Buddha

Part Two: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

In part one we covered the basics of how Japanese Hiragana scripts. In this post we’ll cover some of the more advanced concepts.

First let’s review the basic hiragana characters:

n w r y m h n t s k (blank)

Now, some of the characters can be modified to make somewhat different sounds. For example the “K” column above becomes a “G” column if you add ゛to the characters. か (ka) becomes が (ga) and き (ki) becomes ぎ (gi) and so on. The only columns above that can be modified this way are the “K”, “S”, “T” and “H” columns.

Further, there is one other column to learn and that is the “P” column which is formed by taking the “H” column and adding a small circle ゜for sounds like pa (ぱ), pi (ぴ), pe (ぴ) and so on.

Together these look like so:

b d z g p
* * i
* u

There are three characters to note here:

  • じ is pronounced as “ji”. This kinds of makes sense when you compare the “S” column as a whole with the “Z” column.
  • づ is pronounced as “dzu” but is not commonly used.  Again, this kind of makes sense when seen as a whole.
  • ぢ is pronounced something like “dzi” or “ji”, but is even less commonly used.

Mini Hiragana

A few hiragana characters can be miniaturized to modify other hiragana. Namely や(ya) ゆ(yu) and よ(yo) which become ゃ ゅ and ょ. Literally, they’re a half-size smaller. How are they applied?

Think of the Japanese sound “sho”. You might be tempted to write it as しよ, but since hiragana are typically “what you see is what you get”, the end result would be “shiyo”, not “sho”. And yes, in Japanese there is a difference. A native speaker would have no trouble discerning the difference.

So, the key is to use the mini version of よ, ょ, as in しょ. Note that しよ and しょ look pretty similar, and depending on the typeface used a book or online, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference. Time and practice reading will help here, plus as you gain more experience with Japanese the context will obviously point to one or the other.

In any case, other sound combinations that can be made with these “mini hiragana” are sho, shu, sha, jo, ju, ja,¹ kyo, kyu, kya, gyo, gyu, gya, hyo, hyu, hya and so on.

Note that these are treated as a single syllable in Japanese, not two syllables. This is important when correctly pronouncing Japanese personal names like Ryo. It is a single syllable, so instead of saying “ree-yoh”, it blends together into just “ryo”. Westerners have to take care when pronouncing such sounds to avoid making two syllables. Practice makes perfect! 🙂

Speaking of two syllable-sounds, the ゅ (yu) and ょ (yo) mini-hiragana will also be frequently followed by う (u) as a way to lengthen the sound.  This is something inherent in Japanese language where the “u” and “o” vowels sounds are often lengthened.  This counts a two syllables or two “beats” of sound.  So, using the example of the capitol of Japan, Tokyo, it is pronounced as four syllables: と う きょ う (to u kyo u).  Sometimes this extra “u” is written in Romaji as either “ou”, “uu” or “ō” and “ū”.

Also, be warned that not all “u” and “o” vowel sounds do this.  The word りょこう (ryokou, “travel”) for example.  The first syllable has no trailing “u”, while the second does.

Finally, there is the mini っ (tsu). Unlike normal つ, it actually has *no* pronunciation as such. Instead, it is frequently used to put a brief pause between syllables. The only equivalent in English this author is aware of is the double-k in “bookkeeping”.

Interestingly, the small っ does actually count as a syllable for the purposes of rhythm and spelling even if it doesn’t have a sound, and therefore it does change the spelling of words. Compare sekai せかい (world) with sekkai せっかい (incision). These are two entirely separate words, but the only spelling difference is the small っ. For the purposes of spelling and pronunciation, the word せっかい would be 4 beats and pronounced as “se (pause) ka i”.

In part three, we’ll talk more about how to get used to hiragana and ways to improve your reading skills.

For now, try reading these words:

  • しょうぎ – Japanese chess
  • きょうと – the old capitol of Japan
  • えんぴつ – pencil
  • ひゃく – hundred
  • ざぜん – sitting meditation (namely “Zen”)
  • きょうそう – a foot race
  • えんじる – to act (e.g. theater)
  • しょうが – ginger
  • けっかく – tuberculosis
  • しょっぱい – salty

Good luck!

¹ This leads to an interesting problem in romanization.  In one romanization scheme, these are written as syo, syu, sya, jyo, jyu, jya which is more “Japanese”.  In another scheme, sho, shu, sha, jo, ju, ja which is more “English”.  You may see one other the other, so be aware.  🙂

Part One: Learning Hiragana Ain’t Hard!

Recently a colleague expressed interest in learning Japanese language and asked me for advice.  I’ve been learning Japanese on my own for about 10 years ever since I married my wife, and have reached a point that, while certainly not fluent, I can still read Japanese without too much difficulty.

Japanese language seems difficult at first, but isn’t nearly as hard as it looks.  It’s different, but it has its own internal logic that, once you get the hang of, isn’t really any harder than any other language. Japanese is different, not hard.

The first thing to wrap your head around is the hiragana writing system.  Hiragana is oftentimes the first thing kids in Japan (or my own kids here) learn to read.  Technically speaking hiragana is not an alphabet but a syllabary.  This means that syllables in the Japanese language¹ are usually expressed as a single “letter” or symbol.  か always reads as “ka” and め always reads as “me” and so on.

Typically they’re arranged in a simple grid like so:

n w r y m h n t s k (blank)
n wa ra ya ma ha na ta sa ka a a
ri mi hi ni chi shi ki i i
ru yu mu hu nu tsu su ku u u
re me he ne te se ke e e
wo ro yo mo ho no to so ko o o

Kids in Japan (as well as my kids here) learn this table by starting from upper-right, reading vertically.

Here, you can see that the letters are formed by some combination of a consonant (the top row), and a vowel sound. ま is “ma” or “m” + “a”, for example.

There’s even a row for no-consonants for “a”, “i”, “u”, “e” and “o”. You can see that overall there’s a logical pattern to the setup though there are a few exceptions. First “tu” becomes “tsu” and “ti” becomes “chi”, while “si” becomes “shi”. These are probably just natural sound evolutions.

Another thing to notice is that a few spots are blank. These often refer to sounds that are archaic and don’t exist anymore, or to sounds that just never existed.

Now, if we replace the table above with that actual hiragana…

n w r y m h n t s k (blank)

So, reading a phrase like:

ni hon no na tsu wa atsui

This translates as “Japanese summers are hot” is as simple as reading each hiragana character and pronouncing its sound.

WYSIWYG: What you see is what you get!

Wait, what about は ? It’s supposed to read as “ha”, not “wa”! This is one of the rare exceptions to hiragana rules. When は is used to mark the subject, it’s read as “wa”. Otherwise, it’s “ha”. That’s the only such exception you have to remember. Interestingly, を (wo) is never used except as a marker for direct objects. Otherwise, you never see it anymore in normal words.

In part two, we’ll cover some additional details to round out the lesson.

For now, try reading these words and places:

  • みかん – satsuma orange
  • すし – sushi
  • よこはま – city in Japan
  • なら – another city in Japan
  • くつ – shoe (or shoes)
  • ほとけ – a Buddha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha named “Shakyamuni”)
  • くるま – car

Hiragana may seem daunting at first, but because it’s so consistent, it’s something that you learn once, but use often in Japanese.

Good luck!

¹ Which is easier than some other languages.  Japanese has relatively fewer “sounds” than some languages which is part of the reason why it struggles to pronounce foreign words.

Politics and Hysteria


This was a sobering article I found in the Atlantic:

In particular, this quote really disturbed me:

This matters because political disdain has begun to distort our perception of reality. Democrats now think Republicans are richer, older, crueler, and more unreasonable than they are in real life, according to multiple studies, including one by Douglas Ahler and Gaurav Sood published in The Journal of Politics in April. Republicans, meanwhile, think Democrats are more godless, gay, and radical than they actually are. The more righteous we get, the more mistakes we make.

As is the case anywhere else in the world, demonization eventually bends toward violence. Already, nearly 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans say that many members of the other side “lack the traits to be considered fully human,” according to a 2017 survey by the political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason. Even more chilling: About 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agree that the country would be “better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today ‘just died.’”

The Buddha, Shakyamuni, had a few things to say about this subject.  In the Metta Sutta is the famous quotation:

May all be well and secure, May all beings be happy!

And in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta he talks about how he does not cling to self-centered views:

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

What the Buddha is saying is that it’s really all just inside our head.  The more we build up these things in our mind, the more we cut ourselves off from reality.  This is the opposite of liberation.

In other words: CTFD.

D&D: Nature Clerics Are Fun

gray bridge and trees
Photo by Martin Damboldt on

Since I play Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition) with my two kids, I also make up some additional characters to help bolster their team.  My current favorite is an Wood-Elf Cleric with Nature Domain.

Maybe this is a reflection of real life, but I have often enjoyed playing clerics in Dungeons and Dragons, and if I combine this with my fascination with Tolkein’s elves it was a no-brainer for me, except for one thing: what cleric domain to play?

Elf Deities are numerous, and each one reflects certain domains you can play.  Corellon is a good default choice and covers many good domains to play, and Sehanine covers some other interesting domains that are otherwise overlooked such as Knowledge.  But this time around, I really felt like playing Nature domain instead, so I made my character a priest of Rillifane instead.  Being a wood-elf, this made even more sense.

Nature-domain clerics sometimes get confused with Druids and are often criticized as such.  There was no clear answer online about what the actual difference would be between a nature-domain cleric vs. a druid, but it seems to come down to a couple points:

  1. Clerics derive their power from the divine.  Druids directly from nature.
  2. Clerics serve a higher-power (i.e. emissary of said deity), while Druids are more like sages who explore the mysteries of nature.

The choices partly come down to role-playing “flavor”, but there are some mechanical differences too.

Nature-domain cleric have all the fun of a typical D&D cleric (life gain spells, blessings and still solid melee) combined with the fun flavor of Nature domain.  Unlike a Druid, they also take advantage of Channel Divinity and other things you’d expect from a cleric.  The spells included with Nature Domain are more like utility spells; your nature cleric may not be a one-man wrecking crew, but it does mean you can do wacky, unconventional things like befriending a giant spider rather than outright killing it.1

In any case, part of the fun of D&D is exploring different character ideas and not getting bogged down in purely combat-oriented ideas or which class is better.  After all, there is a great variety of people in real life from a variety of backgrounds, so there’s no reason that D&D can’t reflect the same. 🍃🍄🌸🌻

1 True story, in one adventure, where the party was attacked by giant frogs, I was able to use the Animal Friendship to convince the frogs not to eat us, and therefore leave. It was a nice moment of role-playing and reinforces the idea that not all battles in D&D need be fought to the death.