The Coolest Restaurant on Mt. Daisen: Cinema Valley

When I think of restaurants that offer an “experience” along with a meal, I picture something that’s either themed and a little campy, or wickedly expensive. Cinema Valley, or Mori no Supu ya(森のスープ屋), is neither of these things, and eating here is an experience unlike any other I’ve had in the San’in Region.

This tiny lunch restaurant sits at the foot of Mt. Daisen in a residential area. Walking from the parking area to the front door, the first thing you notice is the genius in the restaurant’s design. While the building itself is not in an isolated area, the way it’s built fools you into thinking that it is.

To get to the front door, you have to walk a short way through a wooded grove. On the way, you might notice that the restaurant’s windows face away from the parking area and instead face out onto a wide expanse of forest. Once inside the restaurant, you’re greeted by soft light, shelves of herbs and spices, a cast-iron stove, and cozy wooden walls and furniture. If you look behind you and through the windows at this point, all you can see is the dense woods. In the space of a few minutes, you’ve left the real world behind, and have stumbled into a warm wooded cottage where something delicious is waiting for you.


Inside Cinema Valley, the only menus to be found are for drinks. The cooks choose what you eat.

Every week, the cooks create a new soup meal, which they serve to all guests. When I went, the meal of the week was a tomato-based vegetable soup with bread and stewed apples.

The ingredients in the weekly soups are all seasonal and locally grown, and everything, including the bread, is made in house.

Even though the meal I had was fairly simple, it was special. It was nicer than anything I’ve ever made at home, but it tasted like home cooking. On top of that, the way it was presented in plates and bowls made of wood or cast-iron completed the illusion that I was far away in the woods somewhere. In short, the food was delicious, and the warm, quiet atmosphere made it that much better.

To finish everything, I decided to try the Komorebi Tea. Komorebi is a Japanese word that’s untranslatable in English. It means sunlight that filters through the trees. Like the rest of the meal, the tea based on this word was a blend made in house.

Cinema Valley is a small restaurant, so if you want to eat here, you should make a reservation. Be prepared to speak some Japanese. Also, when I went in the winter, everyone could only sit inside, but during warmer months, you can have a table in the wooded grove in front of the restaurant.

The best thing about this restaurant is that for the quality of the food and the experience of eating there, it’s actually pretty cheap! The drinks are a little pricey at about 500 or 600 yen, but the soup meals are only about 1,000 yen, which is pretty typical for a good lunch.

I want to visit Cinema Valley again so badly! This restaurant is unique and memorable without being pretentious or inaccessible. Most importantly, the food is so good, and I want to see what other creations the cooks have up their sleeves.

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Tachikuekyo Gorge: Glimpses of Spiritual Japan

Shugendo is a religion that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism. It originated in Heian Period (794-1185 CE) Japan, and promotes practices such as mountain worship and asceticism. Practitioners of Shugendo both in the Heian Period and in the modern day are often known as yamabushi, or mountain priests. Sites connected with Shugendo and its history are found throughout Japan. Tachikuekyo Gorge is one such site just outside of Izumo City.

Just a short car or bus ride outside of Izumo, Tachikuekyo Gorge draws visitors with its views of mountains, natural rock pillars, and over 1,000 statues connected to the gorge’s spiritual roots. Before the Meiji Period (1868-1912 CE), Japan’s era of rapid modernization, a number of temples existed in the gorge. However, certain reformation efforts in the Meiji Period threatened Shugendo’s existence.

Buddhism was formally separated from Japan’s native religion, Shinto, during the Meiji Period, essentially preventing a mixing of the two belief systems. In addition to that, Shugendo practices were banned outright in 1872. This caused many Shugendo sites and relics to be destroyed or removed. Although Shugendo’s practice grew again after World War II, the effects of these reformations are very visible today. In Tachikuekyo Gorge, one temple and the small statues are all that remain of Shugendo practice in the area.

The statues vary in style and age. All of them were donated to the temple by worshipers in the same way that red shrine gates are often donated to Shinto shrines.

Today, the gorge is a popular area for hiking and camping in addition to a spiritual area. A trail running along the Kandogawa River dotted with side trails and suspensions bridges allows you to explore the gorge’s natural and man-made wonders. The deeper you go in to the gorge, the more you feel like you’re worlds away from the city you just came from. The trail through the gorge is open year-round, and is especially popular during the fall for leaf-viewing. Also, further into the gorge, you can find a hot spring with an outdoor bath. It’s a good place to stop after a hike!

Izumo is often referred to as the Land of Myths or the Land of Legends because of the area’s connections to Japan’s creation mythology. Although Tachikuekyo Gorge isn’t directly associated with this mythology, it definitely carries a mythic feel. Being in a forest surrounded by centuries-old statues, you can’t help but imagine yourself in another time or place.

Riding Camels and Running Fast: A Day Trip to the Tottori Sand Dunes

A while ago, I sent this picture to my family and friends and they immediately had questions.

“Riding a camel in the sand dunes…of Japan?”

“Something doesn’t sound right…”

“I’m baffled that there are camels in Japan!”

I was baffled when I first heard about the Tottori Sand Dunes, too, which is why I had to visit.

The Tottori sand dunes (Tottori Sakyu) are about a 15 or 20 minute bus ride outside of Tottori City. They’re one of the main tourist attractions of Tottori Prefecture, and visitors here can do everything from taking in views of the Sea of Japan to paragliding.

I went here earlier in the fall with some of my friends. We got up early to catch a train from Izumo Station. Izumo and Tottori City are pretty far away from each other, but the express trains made the trip pretty reasonable.

After arriving and trying lunch at Sunaba Coffee, a local coffee chain, we tried to figure out how to get to the dunes. There are signs in three different languages all around the station bus stops that tell you which bus to take for what sights. Even so, we still almost got on the wrong bus. Luckily, we didn’t, because there were also signs in the windows of the wrong bus that told us we were about to get on the wrong bus. Clearly, Tottori City wants to check all the boxes possible in being foreign tourist friendly.

Not long after that, we found ourselves at the base of the sand dunes.

A short trek up a hill deposits you right in the middle of a landscape most people wouldn’t associate with Japan.

Immediately to the left, you see camels. If you’ve come at the right time of day, you can see sandboarders or paragliders. A trek up one of the main dunes lets you get an eyeful of the Sea of Japan. You can spend hours walking around the dunes or trying out some of the activities there. One of my favorites was climbing to the top of a dune before running or jumping down it at full speed.

Not far from the dunes themselves is The Sand Museum; an art museum that specializes in (as the name suggests) sand sculptures.

Every year, The Sand Museum chooses a different theme and recruits sculptors from all over the world to create art pieces based on that theme. 2018’s display was called, “Around the World in Sand: Nordic Countries.” It included enormous sculptures inspired by Nordic landscapes, mythology, and famous figures.

At the end of the day, we had enough time to stop in Yonago City and try out some of the hot springs there. It was a great end to the day, and I couldn’t believe how much we were able to do.

I often think to myself that Shimane and Tottori continue to surprise me with hidden gems, but the Tottori sand dunes are something else. I had no idea an area like that existed within Japan. About 70% of this country is a mountain range, but even so, there are little pockets of geographical diversity.

I can’t wait to see what surprise I encounter next.

Matsue Suitoro: The City of Water’s Lantern Festival

Normally, Matsue Castle is closed at night. However, for a time in autumn, the nighttime castle is open. This particular time of year makes for an experience unlike any other in Japan, because the grounds of the 400-year-old castle are illuminated with hundreds of handmade lanterns.

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Shimane Prefecture’s mascot, Shimanekko. 

This is Matsue Suitoro; a festival that takes place every weekend from late September to late October. Professional artists and locals alike create lanterns to display around the castle grounds, and special festival events allow visitors to experience the castle and the nearby Shiome-Nawate Street in once-a-year splendor.

The main events begin just inside the castle grounds. Despite the number of festival-goers, the effect of the soft lantern light in this historical site is nothing short of magical. Exploring the grounds and examining each lantern is like opening a treasure box; you don’t know what you’ll find, but it will be beautiful.

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One of the most unique things about Matsue Suitoro is the sheer variety of lantern designs. Simple-but-elegant lanterns made of hollowed bamboo sit alongside four-sided paper portraits illuminated from within.

On the lawn that stretches out just below the castle, lanterns designed by local school kids are on display. There’s also an area around here where visitors can try their hands at designing their own lanterns!

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When you finally reach the top of the hill, you have the option to climb higher still up the levels of Matsue Castle. This is the best place to get a view of the festival and the nightscape of the city.

Back at the bottom of the castle grounds, the festival continues. All along Shiome-Nawate Street, a place known for its historical buildings, more lanterns and light displays are set up along the old castle moat. You can enjoy these either by walking or by boat. The Horikawa Sightseeing Boats have a dock just in front of Matsue Castle. These small boats take guests on tours of Matsue’s old moats and canals all year round, but on the nights of Suitoro, they offer shorter night tours. The night tour will take you along Shiome-nawate Street so you can enjoy its lights from the water. Then it drops you off at the end of the street so that you can explore the sights there more fully.

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A former Samurai residence and the Matsue History Museum are two of the best-known buildings on Shiome-Nawate Street. For this reason, these buildings also decorate for Suitoro. Entrance to the samurai residence is free for the nights of Suitoro as is entrance to the front courtyard of the history museum. Unless you go inside Matsue Castle, entrance to the castle grounds is free as well!

This year was my second year attending Suitoro. It’s become a must-see event for me! I love exploring Matsue on a normal day, but the dreamy nights of the water lantern festival take me to a completely different city.

The Chapel of Saint Maria: Stories of the Martyrs of Tsuwano マリア聖堂、乙女峠

At the beginning of the 17th century, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued edicts that closed Japan off from the world. Foreigners were forbidden to enter, and Japanese people were forbidden to leave. Despite the country’s new isolation, however, a fear of foreign influence and possible foreign conquest remained. To combat some of this fear, the Shogunate outlawed Christianity, which had found great success in converting people, particularly around Nagasaki. In the following decades, thousands of Christian converts were killed or tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their beliefs. Some Christians managed to evade discovery, and for the next 250 years, they practiced their faith in secret.

Then, in 1868, the Shogunate government fell. The Meiji Restoration, Japan’s period of modernization, began. A number of hidden Christians came out of hiding, believing themselves to be safe. However, they were wrong. During the first five years of the Meiji Restoration, 3,394 men, women, and children who had revealed themselves as Christians were captured and sent to prison camps around Japan. Here, they were tortured continuously in a final attempt to force them to renounce their faith.

One such camp where these atrocities occurred was in Tsuwano, a small mountain town in Shimane Prefecture. 154 Catholics were sent to this town, and 37 died during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

Today, the town of Tsuwano has not forgotten those who died. If you walk from the center of town to the outskirts that meet the mountains, following the signs for Otome Touge Chapel, you’ll come across a wooded grove with a small waterfall and a paved trail. Follow this short trail up the hill, and you’ll come across the Chapel of Saint Maria, built on the site where the 154 hidden Christians were held in Tsuwano.

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The Chapel of Saint Maria (or Otome Touge in Japanese) was built in 1948. It was built for the specific purpose of remembering and memorializing all of those who were brought to Tsuwano, and particularly those who died. A sign posted on the chapel door reads in Japanese that anyone is free to enter the chapel at any time. However, there are many insects and animals in the woods, so make sure the door is shut tightly when you enter and when you leave.

The inside of the chapel is small with only a few pews. On the altar is a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary watching over the captives during their torture.

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Six stained-glass windows adorn the walls of the chapel, each depicting the story of a martyr, or a significant historical scene. One window in particular tells the story of six-year-old Katarina Mori. When she was dying of starvation, one of her captors brought her sweets, saying he would let her have the sweets if she gave up her faith. Katarina replied to her captor, “Heaven tastes better”.

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The area around the chapel memorializes the martyrs of Tsuwano as well, and keeps painful memories of the martyrs’ experiences alive. Next to the chapel is an old well where captives prepared their food. Amounts of food given to the Christians held in Tsuwano were small to begin with, but with time they were gradually reduced more and more. To the left of the well is a small pond. In the winter, this pond would freeze over, and the Christians were stripped naked and thrown into the icy water.

To the right of the old well is a statue depicting one of the martyrs, Yasutaro, locked in a small square prison known as a sanjakuro. Standing above him is the Virgin Mary.

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Yasutaro was often locked in the sanjakuro. Before his death in this small prison, many of the captives worried about him because he was weak from sharing what food he had with others. One night, two of Yasutaro’s friends, Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama, went to visit him, hoping to give him comfort. Yasutaro told them, “I am not lonely at all in this sanjakuro. For just after midnight, a lady appears, clothed in a blue gown and wearing a blue veil just like the image of Santa Maria. She tells me stories so I am not lonely at all. But please do not tell anyone about this while I am still alive.” Yasutaro said that the Virgin Mary came to visit him every night from the 7th to the 19th of January, 1869, just before his death inside the sanjakuro.

Senemon Takagi and Jinzaburo Moriyama survived the five years in Tsuwano. They kept notes about their experiences and the experiences of others. Today, these notes are preserved as accounts of the Martyrs of Tsuwano and what they endured during the first five years of the Meiji Restoration.

In the sixth year of the Meiji Restoration (1873) the prohibition of Christianity was officially lifted. The Christians in Tsuwano and the other prison camps around Japan were set free, and many returned to Nagasaki. Every year on May 3rd, a procession ending with a solemn mass at the Chapel of Saint Maria is held in Tsuwano to remember and honor the Martyrs of Tsuwano. Catholics and Christians from other denominations of the church from all over Japan make a pilgrimage to this procession each year.

The Martyrs of Tsuwano are also remembered and honored at the Tsuwano Catholic Church, which sits on Tonomachi Street, Tsuwano’s main street. Inside this church, visitors can find information in English about the Martyrs of Tsuwano and other hidden Christians. Visitors can also find cards with prayers in English written on the back, asking for the Martyrs of Tsuwano to be canonized into the Catholic church.

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Experience Iwami Kagura: Community Love of Traditional Arts

Care has been taken to remind you where you are. Though this building next to the shrine is modern, all audience members find places to sit scattered around on tatami mat floors. To the left of the stage is a fabric tapestry depicting Inari, the Shinto deity of foxes and agriculture, flying above the town of Tsuwano. Up on the stage itself, hangs a second tapestry and a square canopy full of zig-zag-shaped paper streamers. The performance will happen beneath this canopy.

The first few notes of music skip through the air and a chorus of flute, cymbals, and drums follow closely; slowly at first, and then growing faster and faster. The youngest musician is a fifth grade elementary school student. The oldest has gray hair and plays his taiko drum as fluidly as water. The drum quiets for a moment, and a few warbling lines are sung. The adults in the room seem to hold their breaths. The kids in the room stand in their parents’ laps, looking around in anticipation. The music resumes, and suddenly, there is a figure behind the tapestry on stage. The figure steps forward carefully, holding the tapestry so that the face behind it is not revealed until the proper moment. The Iwami Kagura has just about begun.

Kagura is a traditional Japanese dancing art inspired by the gods of Japan’s Shinto religion. In essence, these elegant dances depict stories of gods defeating monsters and demons. Traditionally, these dances have been used to pray for good harvest, ward off natural disasters, and tell stories. No one knows for sure when kagura actually started, but some people believe that the earliest performance might go all the way back to the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest text, written about 1,300 years ago. Today, there are various styles of kagura that can differ greatly even within a single prefecture.

My first experience with kagura came thanks to one of my coworkers. She invited me to see a performance that her husband was taking part in! On the day of the performance, we headed into the countryside about 20 minutes outside of Izumo City. We hadn’t even been outside of the city for two minutes before the landscape changed drastically. Houses and apartments were replaced with lush, green mountains, and though many rice fields  and gardens existed within Izumo, suddenly every stretch of level ground boasted some kind of crop.

Soon, we can to a wooded shrine on a hill. My coworker told me that this shrine was dedicated to protecting against fires. Just next to the main shrine building, a space had been cleared, and the dancing had already started.

At the time of watching this particular dance, I didn’t understand nearly as much about kagura as I do now. If I had, I probably would have appreciated the art much earlier.

Since kagura performances usually happen at shrines, I assumed that only people connected to specific shrines could perform kagura, but the opposite is true. Like my coworker’s husband, many kagura performers are just regular members of a community who practice the dances on evenings and weekends. Historically, only men have been allowed to perform, but recently, women have begun performing as well. Many kagura performers actually begin practicing the art as children. Some schools in Japan incorporate kagura into their curriculum, and community kagura groups also exist. Those who choose to participate in kagura either as a dancer or a musician will perform at local festivals and community gatherings, hoping to bring good fortune (and some fun) to the areas they live in.

Like many classical arts, however, kagura has had to face challenges in the modern day. Kagura is rarely seen in urban areas, and because so many people in Japan now live in urban areas, it can be difficult for people to experience this art form. As a result of this, the image of kagura has changed from a common form of entertainment, to something akin to Shakespeare; historically and traditionally priceless, but hard for modern audiences to understand. Especially younger audiences.

Despite such challenges, kagura is by no means a dying art form. Some styles of kagura, in fact, have continued to evolve over the years in order to continue capturing the hearts of audiences. Iwami Kagura of Western Shimane Prefecture is one such style.

Iwami Kagura is best known for its elaborate costumes, fast-paced music and dancing, and simple stories. It is one of the prides of Western Shimane, and a network of over 130 active kagura organizations ensure that this art is an established part of daily life in the area.

There are several venues where visitors can experience Iwami Kagura. The venue I happened to visit was Taikodani Inari Shrine in the small town of Tsuwano (also known as “Little Kyoto”). I wasn’t sure what to expect from this performance since my only experience with kagura up to this point had been the one dance outside of Izumo. The moment the performance began, though, I was completely enchanted by the experience. It was unlike the dance I had seen before in all of the best possible ways. I could attempt to go into detail about how everything was different, but I think this video sums it up better.

 

This was actually the third time one of the dancers had come into the audience. The first couple of times, no one was eaten, but the performers were so convincing in their roles as monsters that some of the younger kids in the audience started crying! Even when the performers stayed on stage, though, they had our complete attention. In ever step they took, you could see their years of experience. The precision, emotion, and beauty of their dances made it literally impossible to look away from them. Unless, of course, a second dancer happened to be sneaking up from behind the audience.

The time after the performance was just as fun as the performance itself. Audience members were allowed to stay afterwards and try on some of the costumes, including the gods’ robes and the serpents’ heads! Trying on one of the robes gave me a whole new appreciation for kagura dancers. Those costumes are heavy! In the case of Iwami Kagura, four people can spend up to one month making a single costume. All costumes are handmade, and real silver and gold thread is used for embroidery on the robes. One robe can weigh up to 20 kilograms or about 44 pounds! Even lighter costumes made of paper like the serpents in the video can be bulky and difficult to maneuver, but you would never guess that watching the dances. Each performer makes their movements look so easy, and yet as soon as you try on one of the costumes, you understand how much dedication it takes to master this art form. It is truly incredible.

If you ever want to experience a piece of real Japan, I can’t recommend kagura, especially Iwami Kagura, enough. These dances are the products of regular people’s sheer love and dedication to traditional arts. The stories these dances tell are based on the founding mythology of Japan, something that has influenced art and culture in Japan for centuries. Not to mention it’s fun and can be really cheap to watch. The performance I watched at Taikodani Inari only set me back 500 yen (about 5 dollars).

The two characters used in writing the word, “kagura”, literally mean, “entertaining the gods”. Trust me when I say that a night spent watching Iwami Kagura is a night you will never forget.

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Credit: AKIKAKU, Katy Manning, “Iwami, Exploring Unfamiliar Japan”, “Iwami Kagura”

 

Kojiki Stories: Princess Konohanasakuya

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Children’s copy of the Kojiki. Princess Konohanasakuya is pictured in the top left corner.

The Kojiki is the oldest written text in Japan. It details the creation mythology of Japan, as well as other myths related to the various gods and goddesses enshrined throughout the country. A while ago, I found a children’s copy of the Kojiki at the bookstore, and I’ve been reading it to practice my Japanese and learn more about Japan’s mythology. The most recent story I’ve read from this book is too good not to share. It’s about a figure that not a lot of people have heard about, that they absolutely should know about; Princess Konohanasakuya.

Sometimes represented with the symbol of a cherry blossom, Konohanasakuya is the goddess of Mt. Fuji and all volcanoes.

According to the Kojiki, she and Hononinigi (grandson to the sun goddess, Amaterasu), met and fell in love on a beach. Hononinigi immediately asked Konohanasakuya’s father for permission to marry her, but it was proposed that he should marry her older sister, Princess Iwanaga, instead. Hononinigi refused this proposal, insisting on marrying Konohanasakuya. They eventually were able to marry, but this marriage shaped humanity forever.

Princess Iwanaga was the Princess of Rocks. Konohanasakuya was the Princess of Cherry Blossoms. If Hononinigi had married the Princess of Rocks, humans would have been blessed with long, enduring lives, like the rocks. Because he married the Princess of Cherry Blossoms, however, humanity was given short, fleeting lives, like the lives of cherry blossoms themselves.

After they were married, Konohanasakuya became pregnant after only one day. Suspicious, because pregnancy had happened so quickly, Hononinigi accused his wife of having borne someone else’s child.

Furious at this accusation, Konohanasakuya built an enormous house and shut herself inside. “Watch,” she told her husband. “If this child is truly yours, they will be born safely. If not, they will not be born safely.”

She then proceeded to set the house on fire while she was still inside.

Hononinigi panicked, but was unable to do anything.

Inside the burning house, Konohanasakuya gave birth to three boys. All of them were Hononinigi’s children, and so they survived the fire along with their mother.

There are multiple shrines dedicated to Konohanasakuya in Japan. Most of them are within sight of Mt. Fuji. These shrines are often used to pray for easy births, and protection against volcanic eruptions and fire.

I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I did! The intensity of Konohanasakuya really surprised me, and I had to share this myth.

 

 

 

Study Tips for the JLPT N3

In Japan, the summer testing date for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test has come and gone. This year, I decided to attempt N3, the newest testing level that claims to cover language used in everyday situations. To my surprise, studying for this level of the test was a bit harder than I thought it would be.

After N3 was added to the JLPT roster, tests from previous years stopped being released as study material. This coupled with the fact that N3 is fairly new makes it difficult to find official study materials outside of one textbook and online test. As soon as I realized this, I realized just how much material “everyday situations” could possibly cover, and I was quickly overwhelmed because I didn’t feel like I knew what would be on the test.

After taking the test, however, I think finally have a good idea of what the official study materials were trying to tell me to prepare for. So today, I’m going to talk about my tips for studying for the JLPT N3. If you’re studying for the test date in December or are thinking about taking this level eventually, I hope this can help you!

 

  1. Tone and Synonyms

If you look carefully at some of the practice questions in the official study materials for N3, you’ll notice that some questions have two answers that essentially mean the same thing. Often, what makes one answer right and one answer wrong is its tone and level of formality. To prepare yourself for these kinds of questions, make sure you have a good understanding of when certain words or phrases should be used.

Study basic keigo so you have some grasp of formal Japanese.

Study the casual counterparts of the keigo so you have an idea of what language is good for a variety of contexts.

Take note of how grammar and verb forms affect the tone. For example, what’s the difference between ~かもしれない, ~はず, and ~にちがいない? How about the difference between ~てもいいですか and ~たらどうですか? It’s good to know these by heart, and it’s even better to know when and why they’re used.

Take note of how vocabulary fits the tone of a composition or conversation. For example, when would you use したがって over それから? わけover 理由?

On the note of understanding vocabulary, knowing the synonyms of different words could help you. One pair of synonyms that I learned recently was おなかがついた and おなかがへった. Both of these phrases mean, “I’m hungry,” but I had never heard おなかがへった before I moved to Japan and started having conversations with my coworkers.

N3 won’t ask you to do a lot of reading for inference like higher testing levels might, but it will try to test your ability to read context, determine tone, and name synonyms.

 

  1. Hiragana and Katakana Vocabulary

If you’re taking N3, you clearly know hiragana and katakana. Make sure your vocabulary of hiragana and katakana words is as strong as your knowledge of kanji. This can help you on almost every section of the test simply by increasing your chances of understanding what’s written in front of you. The last thing you want is to be confronted with a question and not understand some of the content.

 

  1. Kanji

Of course, you can never know too many kanji either. Learn as many as you can for the same reasons you should build your hiragana and katakana vocabulary. It can only help you understand more. Just be careful not to focus too much on kanji, because a lot of the more difficult characters throughout the test will actually come with furigana. It’s still worth learning how to read these to understand their meaning, but don’t go overboard on kanji and neglect other parts of your study routine.

 

  1. Syntax

Understanding how different grammar forms fit together is essential for understanding the N3. Practicing this can be tricky, so take advantage of what you can find. Finish the exercises in the official study materials and make sure you understand why certain grammar fits together the way it does. Look up different grammar in dictionaries, and read through their rules. If you know someone who speaks a high level of Japanese, ask them what sounds right or wrong in terms of syntax and why.

By now you’re probably noticing that the names of the game in N3 are why and how. Why, why, why, why, why. How, how, how, how, how. This fits back in with my first tip about studying tone. The people who write N3 every year know that you know a decent amount of Japanese. What they want to know now is how well you understand the way this language actually works in everyday usage.

 

  1. Recommended Materials

The official N3 textbook and the online tests on the JLPT website are the best starting points for building your study routine. Both of these will give you a good idea of how the test will feel in each section, and what kinds of questions you’ll encounter. Outside of these materials, though, there are plenty of other resources that can help you.

Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui’s A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar was something I couldn’t put down when studying for N3. In addition to being easy to use, it gives great explanations of how the grammar you’re looking up actually works. It has several entries for particles like に so it can properly explain all the different ways this particle fits into Japanese grammar. In certain entries, this dictionary will also tell you phrases similar to the one you’re looking up, and clarify the difference between these similar phrases. Most helpful of all, the phrases in this dictionary are some of the most commonly used in the Japanese language and therefore, they’re things that you’ll likely find on the N3. (Side note, these authors also have dictionaries for intermediate and advanced grammar if you’re interested!)

If you still can’t find the explanations you need, though, asking someone who already speaks Japanese for help is one of the best things you can do. While I was going through the N3 textbook, I marked a few questions I couldn’t understand even after trying to look up the grammar and vocabulary and showed them to some of my coworkers. My coworkers were probably the biggest help to me while I studied.

If you don’t know someone who speaks Japanese, though, you can always try using online Q&A forums, because someone else has probably asked a similar question to yours before. Using Japanese media to study can also help. NHK News, for example, has a free app called NHK Easy Japanese News. This app lets you read daily news in N4 and N3 level Japanese. It also comes with things like furigana, vocabulary lists, videos, and settings where you can hide the furigana or begin looking at the news in more difficult Japanese. Look around for apps like these that expose you to real-world Japanese, and you might end up learning exactly what you need to.

 

  1. Before the Test

A friend of mine took the JLPT the same day I did, and he gave me some good advice for what to do the day before the test.

Don’t study.

According to him, the day before the test shouldn’t be about studying, it should be about mental preparation. As he puts it, studying up until the last minute probably won’t give you too much more of a chance of remembering your material than if you took a day off. On top of that, getting anxious or frustrated can be really detrimental to you during the test because you might not have a lot of time to spare. You want to be able to focus as clearly as you possibly can, especially since N3 covers a lot of subtle language points.

For all of these reasons, taking a whole day to just relax and not think about the test might be a good way to prepare, too. I can’t speak for you, but it definitely worked for me. I stayed at home and watched movies, did some cleaning, and tried some new recipes for lunch and dinner. By the time that day was over, I felt like I was ready to take the test. The day of the test, I went through my kanji flashcards one last time, but in general, I tried not to stress too much about cramming.

 

I hope these tips help you get a better idea of what to look for on the N3, and best of luck in all of your studying!

がんばろう!

 

 

 

Hidden Gems: Izumo Cultural Heritage Museum

I’ve passed by the Izumo Cultural Heritage Museum (Izumo Bunkadenshokan) so many times on my way to other places, that you’d think I would have visited it earlier. Sadly, my assumptions that it was just another historical house convinced me to keep putting it off. Luckily, though, my curiosity motivated me to finally visit, and I’m so glad I did! Access to the grounds and gardens inside the museum is free, and it’s the perfect place to just take a quiet walk.

The Cultural Heritage Museum itself is made up of a historical house previously owned by one of the wealthiest families in Izumo, a modern tea house, a historical tea house, a soba restaurant, and a modern exhibition hall. Special exhibits come and go from the modern hall, showing things like art by classic Japanese painters, or works of textiles, which was the exhibit on display when I went.

The first building you encounter is the Izumo Yashiki, the historical house. This used to be the main building of a larger estate built in 1896, and it’s a designated cultural treasure of Izumo City.

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Inside the house, there are several tatami mat rooms (make sure to take off your shoes before you walk through them!) that look out onto one of the museum’s gardens. This is a karesansui garden, it’s made up of beds of rocks and carefully placed stepping stones and is bordered by pine trees. You can’t actually walk through this garden for the same reason you can’t touch a painting. Take some time to observe it, though. This garden is meticulously cared for, and it’s view changes with the four seasons.

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There is another garden on the grounds that you actually can walk through. This is just past the modern tea house through a small gate, and it surrounds the historical tea house.

This historical tea house, known as Dokurakuan, was built by Sen no Rikyu, one of the most famous Japanese tea ceremony practitioners of all time. It was preserved thanks to the seventh feudal lord of Matsue castle (sometimes referred to as Fumai), who was also an avid tea ceremony practitioner.

The idea behind tea house gardens is to create the illusion of being far away from your busy life and troubles. Walking along the stepping stones of this garden, you definitely feel like you’re someplace far away.

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If you’re interested in photography, even as an amateur, this is the place for you. There are so many little details to discover, and in the early summer, dragonflies and butterflies might pay you a visit.

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If a walk through Dokurakuan’s garden makes you crave some tea, look no further than the museum’s modern tea house. Here, you can enjoy some matcha and traditional sweets in a room decorated based on the seasons.

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This was one of my favorite places in the museum, and it wasn’t just because I love tea and sweets. Looking back, architecture is something I’ve never thought much about, but looking around this tearoom really started me thinking on what details can add to a space. The hostess working in the tearoom the day I visited pointed out some of the smaller design details to me before I had my tea. Just above some sliding glass doors, there was a band of wooden panels that I hadn’t really paid much attention to. My hostess, though, slid the panels open to reveal tiny gourd-shaped decorative windows! She told me that this was a shape that Fumai liked, and it was supposed to be lucky. Some other wood cutouts I noticed in the tearoom were in the shape of drifting clouds, which reminded me of Izumo’s namesake; eight clouds drifting by, forming an eight fold fence for one to retire behind.

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If you buy a ticket to the special exhibit, you can get a ticket for having tea and sweets at the modern tea house for half price.

Another one of my favorite features of the Cultural Heritage Museum was something next to the parking lot that I never expected to find; a water fountain shaped like an eight-headed serpent.

According to Japanese folklore, a giant eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent called Yamata no Orochi used to come to the Izumo area every year to devour one of the daughters of two minor deities. Eventually, only one of their daughters remained, Princess Inada. It was at this time that Susano’o, one of the major deities in Japanese mythology appeared. Susano’o offered to kill Yamata no Orochi if he could have Princess Inada’s hand in marriage. Princess Inada’s parents agreed to this. Then, Susano’o killed Yamata no Orochi by tricking the serpent into drinking eight pots of strong sake, and cutting off each of the eight heads when the serpent fell asleep.

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You can see images of Yamata no Orochi just about anywhere in Izumo; on manhole covers, in paintings in restaurants, and even on the sides of buildings. This fountain outside the Cultural Heritage Museum dispenses spring water from a nearby mountain. When I visited the museum, several people came by and filled empty jugs with the water. One of the people stopping by told me that this water is good for making coffee and tea because it’s so fresh and clean. If you don’t happen to have anything to take some water home in, you can also just drink from the fountain.

The last fun thing I found around the museum was a seasonal wonder, hydrangeas! June is the time of year when hydrangeas are at their peak bloom. People will visit parks and gardens all over Japan just to get good views of the flowers. Just across the street from the Cultural Heritage Museum, there’s a small park with rows and rows of hydrangeas. Before I left, I had to stop and take some pictures of them.

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The Cultural Heritage Museum makes for a nice, quiet afternoon, and it showcases some of what makes Izumo so special through its history, folklore, and food (I didn’t get a chance to stop by the museum’s soba restaurant this time around, but I’ve heard it’s really good!). It’s one of those things you can easily miss amid sights like Izumo Taisha or Hinomisaki Lighthouse, but it’s definitely worth a visit! It’s especially nice to know that even after living in Shimane for so long, I can still discover new places like this.

Climbing Mt. Daisen: A Beginner’s Experience

Before I climbed Mt. Daisen, I had never climbed a literal mountain in my life. Still, the friend who invited me climbing told me that she regularly guides elementary-school-aged kids up and down the mountain, so I figured climbing Daisen was something I could probably pull off.

As it turned out, the actual experience of climbing a mountain was something I never could have accurately imagined on my own. By the time I made it back down the mountain, I felt like an exhausted wooden doll and my legs were sore for about three days afterwards. Oh, was it worth it, though!

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Looking back down about 100 meters from the sumit

If you climb a lot of stairs in your daily life, you’ll probably be well prepared to climb Daisen. The trail we took was made of steps that just kept going up. In some places, the steps were so steep that I barely had to bend over to use my hands to help me up.  Despite how hard the climb was, I was ecstatic to be climbing Daisen because the natural beauty on that mountain is otherworldly.

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A small section of man-made steps

The trail head my friends and I took leads you straight through Daisen’s old growth forests. Fun fact about these: since climbing was forbidden on Mt. Daisen until recent times, the trees covering the slopes have just been allowed to grow and grow and now they’re the oldest growth beech forest in Japan. As you climb, you’ll get some indications as to how much the trees in this forest are valued. There are multiple sections on the trail where a tree just sits right in the middle of it, and climbers have to go around. I also noticed that someone had built a cairn in the nook of one particular tree. I pointed it out to one of my friends and she said it’s probably because a tree that old most likely had a god inside of it.

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Daisen beech forest

Because I wasn’t accustomed to a climb this steep, I had to take a lot of breaks. I was really glad for the frequent breaks, though, because they gave me an excuse to stop and look around at everything. I’m not exaggerating when I say that each view on Daisen is better than the last. I would stop somewhere, look up and around at the trees, and think about how beautiful this particular view was. Then I would climb just a little bit higher, and I could see through the trees and look down on how far I’d climbed and that view was even more beautiful!

On this particular trail, there are ten different signposts to pass before you get to the summit. The forest continues until around the seventh or eighth signpost. The trees obstruct your view for a while, but they also keep you shaded for the most difficult parts of the climb. The higher you go, the more of your surroundings you’ll be able to see.

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The last couple hundred meters of the trail look completely different from where you started. Because the wind near the summit can be really strong, the vegetation is much shorter than everything near the foot of the mountain. The last hundred meters or so were my favorite part of the trail. At this point, you leave the steep steps you’ve been climbing and move onto a wooden boardwalk. Cool wind blows and refreshes you from the climb so far. If you look behind you, you can see Tottori Prefecture, and a little bit of Shimane Prefecture stretching out below you. Best of all, since multiple trails converge on the summit, there are several boardwalk paths you can take to explore the area around the summit.

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All of the trails end at the summit ranger’s station. Here, an open space has been cleared for climbers to take a rest and enjoy the view. That’s not the only thing you’ll find, though. Inside the ranger’s station is a small shop that sells drinks and snacks rangers have packed up the mountain. They even sell souvenirs that you can only find if you make it to the summit. On top of all of this, the ranger’s station sometimes offers climbers a place to sleep overnight. If someone wants to see the sunrise from Daisen, a common thing to do is climb the mountain in the evening, stay the night at the ranger’s station, and then wake up early to watch the sun come up.

One of the most interesting things I learned during this climb is the fact that’s it’s customary for climbers to carry a rock with them up the mountain. Just before the trail head my friends and I used to climb, there’s a pile of different-sized stones that climbers can choose to carry. When you finally reach the summit, you leave the stone there. Daisen’s rangers use these stones to help prevent erosion on Daisen’s summit. The wooden boardwalk around the summit is also meant to help with this. Back in the 1980s, much of the plant life on Daisen’s summit had been trampled by climbers, leaving the mountain prone to erosion. Projects like the boardwalk, carrying the stones, and other efforts have helped to preserve the mountain and restore its summit.

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When I looked down at the view from Daisen’s summit, I couldn’t believe we had actually climbed all this way. The trail head my friends and I had take was about 900 meters above sea level, and the summit stands at 1700 meters. We had just climbed eight hundred meters of stairs, and made it to the top of the highest mountain in Japan’s Chugoku region. It was so satisfying to know that I’d stuck it out this long to get to the top, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience.

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The summit ranger’s station

In total, climbing up and climbing back down took about six hours. Two hours to climb the mountain, and a little less than two to climb back down, but my friends and I took lots of breaks, rested at the summit, and took our time exploring the trails around the ranger’s station. There are multiple trails going up and around Mt. Daisen, and we took the one that skirts around Daisen Temple. To access this trail head, you take a right from the souvenir street above the information center, cross a bridge, and then walk a little ways down the road until you see some steps leading up into the forest.

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Outline of our route up the mountain

On the way down, we turned onto a different trail that leads straight to Ogamiyama Shrine. There were fewer people climbing up this trail, so it was much easier to walk down. Completely unrelated to that, this trail was amazing because just before we reached the shrine, we were brought this dry riverbed that looked back up at the mountains. I could have sat for hours just taking this in!

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By the way, I didn’t realize this would be the case until I actually did it, but climbing down the mountain is almost harder than climbing up. Since the stairs are so steep, you have to pick your way down carefully. Also, since your legs are straining so much to keep you steady on the way down, you’ll feel you’re legs twitching if you stop to rest (my friend told me that in Japanese, you describe this by saying hiza ga waratteiru, or, “my knees are laughing”).

All in all, there are too many good things to say about climbing Daisen! The sights are spectacular, the people climbing up and down the mountain are so friendly, and it was actually possible for a beginner to finish the climb in one piece. I would love to come back and see more of these trails.

Daisen is one of those places that makes me so incredibly happy to have been placed in Shimane.  I had never heard anything about this corner of Japan before I was told to come here, but now, I don’t think I would have liked it any other way. The opportunity to explore places in and around Shimane is priceless, and I’m so happy to be here.