A Japanese host bar

A Japanese host bar

I was recently enjoying the cold weather in Japan when I made a new friend. She took me to a host bar  in Kabukicho, where we could apparently get cheap drinks served by cute guys.

I knew nothing about host bars beyond seeing Ouran High Host Club years ago. I assumed it was kinda like a maid or butler cafe, but with more boozy late nights. I’ve since been told that host bars hover more across the line in sex work within the public’s perception – and that drinks are often not all that’s on the menu. Being a host is not the kind of job that you would casually put on your resume if looking for work outside the industry.

So, my experience. I had a fun time, and yes the drinks were cheap and のみほうだい (all you can drink). The main benefit – and the reason I’m mentioning it at all on this blog – is I’ve never used so much Japanese. While in the host bar, you’re assigned a host (or hostess) whose job it is to make sure you have a good time (and continue to buy drinks – you are also expected to buy a drink for your host, but it’s not much). So I had a captive audience for my broken Japanese for hours. And he had to grin and bear it while complimenting me on my language abilities, pretending to be fascinated, and being very, very patient. They* were also kind enough to stick to topics where I’d have a chance with the vocab. For example, one easy conversational lob my way was “what are your favourite foods?

If your Japanese is pretty poor (like mine) you will need someone fluent/local to get you in. They can confirm the prices and do the introductions. Then you’ll probably be faced with a perplexed host or hostess wondering what they’re going to do with this 外人who can’t speak Japanese. When you manage some sort of conversation the expression will turn to amazement (as if a talking dog has just appeared). My host nearly melted with relief when I read the menu on my own. I could tell he was flustered, wondering if he’d have to read each item to me. Which I guess is part of what makes them all the more ready to listen to any Japanese, no matter how ungrammatical.

If you want a different way to spend a couple hours improving your Japanese, a host bar is pretty fun. I found the prices more then fair** and I didn’t wake up without a kidney the next day.
*I went to a couple of different host bars and met several hosts (and a hostess). They were all lovely and very kind (of course, they’re paid to be lovely and kind!).

**Prices: Bar 1: ¥1,000/hr all you can drink. Drinks for the host, ¥800. Bar 2: ¥3,000/2hr all you can drink. Drinks for the host were ¥800. After the all you can drink time was over, drinks became ¥500/each.


Travelling while studying


Despite semester one being something of a refresher for me, I still found it super hectic. The course I’ve chosen packs a lot in to each week. If you fall behind one week, it’s a quick slide to missing half of the course while you scramble to catch up.

I spent about a month travelling overseas (EU and UK) and managed to keep up with my course. Every week required a homework assignment and online quiz to be completed, with the major final exam due not long after I returned, so there was no chance for slacking. It was difficult but I managed by having an understanding travel buddy (my husband) and booking accommodation that had free wifi. Wandering around looking for cafes or libraries with wifi so I could submit assignments was not for me.

As we were travelling in some rural locations, sometimes the wifi was a bit sketchy but it held up enough to watch my lectures and (I admit) skim through the tutorial notes. My tutor was really great about giving me the homework assignments early so I could print them all out before I left. He also agreed I could take a picture and upload via my iPad (it usually has to be clearly scanned). All our homework assignments are handwritten so our handwriting/stroke order can also be assessed, so I wasn’t able to just type my answers up and email them in.

It also helped that, because we were often in rural areas, there wasn’t much (any!) night life for me to miss out on if I had to study in the evenings. I definitely had to be conscientious about taking time out to study though and remember which days things were due (especially with the time differences). I had expected I’d be able to study a lot on some of the longer train trips we took, but reading on the train ended up making me motion sick, so that was a huge fail. 

But I ended up having a great holiday and still getting a High Destinction for the class, so I call that an overall success (caveat: I’m only studying ONE unit per semester! I don’t think I would’ve held up so great if I’d had a full workload).

On the Isle of Skye, Scotland

New studies!

I managed to get enrolled in my preferred course, so I’m happily just finishing up week one.

Since I decided to repeat all the early classes, I’m just reviewing material at this point. And week one is all hiragana so I’m able to really ease myself back into study mode. I do use my laptop for the tests and lectures, but I’m pleasantly surprised that these also work on my iPad. I’ll be doing some travelling in May and wasn’t too sure about being able to keep up with the lectures and tutorials, but it should be fine.

While swapping learning resources this week, one of the other students suggested the app HelloTalk. I’ve been trying it out for a couple of days and so far enjoying it.


It seems kind of new, because it’s still a bit buggy, but worth my patience. This language learning app connects people so you’ve got an instant study-buddy who you can text message (or even voice chat, if you allow it).

After signing up I wrote a short bio and gave some personal info (age, location, gender – however much you’re comfortable with). I set some preferences for users that are allowed to message me (i.e, only over 25s can find me in a search, native English speakers can’t message me). My main reason for limiting myself to older users is that I don’t want to accidentally pick up ‘youthful slang’ and sound ridiculous.

At first glance, it seems this app would be ripe for the kind of guys who are only really interested in trying to hook up with girls. However, the developers have thought of that too. If you try to click on someone’s profile picture to enlarge it, you get a message explaining that that function won’t work as this is an app for language learning only. The first time you message a new person you also get the following display (not just the first time you use the app, the first time you message every new person):


Of course there’s the good old Block User function, but I appreciate the in-your-face rules. In fact, if you’re still concerned, you can select the option to only allow users of the same gender to find you in the search results.

Yes, it’s only been a couple of days, but so far my experience has been very positive. I’ve exchanged messages with a few different people and have been experimenting with the different functions. Like Lang8, you can correct a sentence and send it back. Except it’s usually just a short sentence/message, so I’m not finding it too overwhelming. Unlike Lang8, you can also send pictures. Which has been fun when wanting to describe something or simply doing a little cultural exchange. Another anti-spam, anti-harassment rule built into the app: you can only send pictures after the other user has sent you five messages.

There are heaps of other functions that I haven’t tried out yet – like the ability to draw a picture (or some kanji?) within the app and send it to your buddy.


Now I’m wondering if I could play some kind of multi-lingual Hangman.

Anyway, check it out if you think it could be useful. I’m all for anything that gets me using Japanese more.


I’ve been trying to sort out my application for the Uni course I want to take next year. It’s a Diploma, which means I should be able to take it as a post-grad, even though I’m a graduate of a different university. 

The information I’ve found says I can take it – I just need to supply my transcript and some other forms. Proof that I already hold a BA. However, the online application process doesn’t seem to have an option for me. 

I’ve emailed the uni to ask how I actually apply and they’ve just said I need to be enrolled in a BA or already hold a BA (which I knew). I’ve explained my situation again and am still waiting to hear back. 

I’ve got til the end of January to finalise my application before classes start but I had hoped to get everything done before Christmas. 

On the chance that they won’t let me enroll, I’ve been looking around for other Japanese courses. Unfortunately, the one I want to get into is the best (for me). Best structure, external study available, interesting range of unit topics. 

I’ve found a language school that will do in a pinch but attending classes in the evening will be a challenge (most of my week day evenings are already taken up with karate training). And the fees are up-front. The beauty of studying through a university is that I can pay for it via HECS and just pay that back through my taxes. 

Hopefully I’ll hear back from the uni soon with something positive. 


I’ve managed to formally apply! Finally. Now I wait to see if I get in.

What am I reading?

What am I reading?


With the year winding down, I’ve been trying to finish off some books. I have piles in English, but have been trying to devote time to getting through a couple of Japanese texts.

I’ve been alternating between these two books, which I’ve been enjoying for very different reasons.

New Penguin Parallel Text: Short Stories in Japanese


This book is an anthology of short stories by Japanese authors, some names I recognise, some I don’t (the first story in the collection is by Murakami). The beauty of it is that each page is displayed with the story in both English and Japanese, so that I don’t have to reach for my dictionary so often. I imagine this would also be a good book for a Japanese speaker learning English.

I like reading the Japanese text first and attempting my own translation. Seeing the word choices of the professional for the English text afterwards is interesting and sometimes surprising. There’s a lot more to translating than just writing down the words!

The stories I’ve read so far seem quite literary which is in contrast to the other book I’ve been reading:

Kaitou Red (Phantom Thief Red)


Book one of a series, it’s a kid’s story that is written in a very easy style with plenty of furigana. There’s even pictures here and there. I’d guess it’s meant for ages 8-10. And I have to say I’m enjoying it a lot more than the more literary short story collection!

These two are cousins who, when they turn 13, take on the mantle of the “Phantom Thief Red” from their fathers. She’s a normal kind of athletic girl who reads too much manga. He’s an introverted super genius.

I’ve just started the book but I’m sure their team-up will be fraught with challenges and interesting villains to take down.

I picked this book up from a Japanese book store and chose it simply because the cover looked interesting and the writing inside seemed just challenging enough without being too difficult. And if my reading comprehension improves enough, there’s a whole lot more books in the series to continue on with!


Learning between my “official studies.”

About a year ago, I hit a road block with the course I was doing. It only allowed an external student to study Introductory Japanese I & II. To go any further you need to officially apply to become a student at that University, studying towards an official diploma.

Now that all seemed a bit serious. I’d started out with the germ of an idea that I’d like to be able to read menus, signs, that sort of thing when travelling. So I needed to think about it. It’d be expensive (I just finished paying off my HECS). And I remember struggling with assignments while I was at uni and I wasn’t even working full-time!

For the past year, I’ve been slogging along on my own, seeing what I can maintain and what new material I can learn. The basics had been fine. My kana reading continued to improve, so that I can read it as quickly as English now.* My speaking ability, which had never been that great, had been taking a dive. My knowledge of more complex sentence structures (learnt later in Japanese II, when I was finding it harder to keep up) had definitely taken a dive. I had some down time when I questioned whether this was something I wanted to continue.

Obviously, I decided I did want to continue. In fact, I decided that formal education seemed like the only way forward for me. I had the option of applying this year, for the last semester. Assuming I would get credit for my prior learning, I would’ve jumped straight into Japanese II (because, yeah, that was a steep learning curve and no way was I not going to repeat it). Instead, I decided not to rush. Right now, I’m applying to begin at the start of 2016 in what they call a Diploma of Languages with a speciality in Japanese.

I’ll be technically repeating Japanese I & II next year, which might seem like an unnecessary expense or that it puts me ‘behind.’ But if there’s something that’s been made clear in the past year, it’s that I really need my knowledge of the basics to be solid. This isn’t about just blitzing through and getting the diploma at the end. I actually want to come away with a solid understanding of the language. This will be a three or four year diploma (studied part-time), which still puts me well on target for ‘fluency’ by age 40.

As next year rolls around, I’ll talk more about the course. Some of the classes available sound really interesting.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping up with what I have by:

  1. Attending a FREE weekly Japanese class at the public library. The teacher is excellent (don’t assume ‘free’ equals ‘poor quality’!) and the class has the huge advantage that many Japanese international students also attend the class to help with the lesson. The typical class format, regardless of content, has the class broken into small groups (perhaps four) with at least one native Japanese speaker in your group. Sometimes the international students far out-weigh us language learners. This has the huge advantage of being able to practice Japanese with many different native speakers and not feel too awkward, because most of the time they’re there to practice their English.** Because it’s so casual (a free class! no sign up!) it’s also a friendly social group, offering the opportunity for end-of-term dinners and conversations outside the classroom environment.
  2. Meeting with a Japanese tutor every week. I advertised for a language exchange partner on Gumtree (the Australian online network for ads – perhaps like Craigslist?) offering $20 for an hour. Which didn’t feel like too much of a rip-off for the casual conversation practice I wanted. I got really lucky. Instead of the expected international student, I got a response from someone whose first language is Japanese but who is equally fluent in English. Who has, in fact, worked as a translator into both languages. Our routine is to meet at a central place (somewhere with coffee) and to chat as well as I can for an hour. I will try to think of topics before we meet so I don’t flounder too much but I certainly don’t manage to speak for one hour in Japanese only. When I flounder, my tutor is able to help me understand in English why the sentence might need to be framed a different way. Or why a word choice would be inappropriate. I’ve often come to her with cultural questions – things I’ve seen in Japan, or read in books, that I had no explanation for. So, yes, for $20 I’ve ended up with a tutor, no just a language exchange buddy. (Yes, I will be giving her an awesome gift basket come Christmas).
  3. Reading. My reading is much stronger than my speaking. My vocabulary, however, is still pretty weak.*** Nothing but time can fix this. So for now, I read with a dictionary. I think I’ll do a separate post about what I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll just say it’s not too hard to come across reading material. There’s a lot online, but I prefer physical books. Some I’ve found in stores in Australia. Some I’ve picked up while in Japan. I really enjoy reading in English, so this is an important skill for me. My ultimate goal is to be able to read simple light novels. For now, vocab and kanji. The study that never ends.

*I’m a pretty slow reader even in English though
**Using there/they’re/their all in one sentence. Well done, me.
***Compared to my English vocabulary. Which is a ridiculous comparison for me to make.

Japanese/Language learning tools

Japanese/Language learning tools

I’ve gone through a few different apps over the last couple of years. These are ones I’ve found to be the most useful.

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ll need to start by learning hiragana and katakana. These sets of characters are invaluable and not that hard to learn! Even for friends just holidaying in Japan, I feel knowing even katakana alone will make their journey that bit easier.

The easiest and quickest way I found to learn the kana was mnemonics. There are probably several apps that help you learn kana this way but the Dr Moku apps were recommended to me and they’re what I’ve used.

Dr Moku describes mnemonics as

“memory tricks that use humour or a memorable personal connection to help you remember something.”

For example, here is the mnemonic for the hiragana character あ

It gives you the shape/amusing association, and you can tap the audio icon to hear how it should sound.

Here’s another for く

And just like that, you’ve learnt two hiragana.

When you’re ready for katakana (in the course I was doing hiragana was week one, katakana was week four) Dr Moku has it covered. I found it slightly more difficult as all the sounds are the same as in hiragana, it’s just the character shape that changes. And some katakana look quite similar.

Using the same sounds as earlier, this is ア

And here is ク

As you see, the characters for ku, ke, ta look similar (ク、ケ、タ).

You can also take little quizzes within the app to test what you’ve learnt and what you remember. If you’re keen to improve your writing, there’s also a section that shows you the correct stroke order for each character (apparently it does make a difference).

The other app I’ve been using a lot lately is memrise.

“We make learning languages and vocab so full of joy and life, you’ll laugh out loud.”

I don’t know about laughing out loud…but it’s a well-designed app and I find it fun to use. I’ve tried similar apps, but the design and fun nature of memrise appeals to me more. You can download many courses available on the memrise website, or you can start your own. For example, I add in all the weekly vocab I need to learn.

There’s a couple of different ways it will quiz you. Select from multiple choice:

Or type your answer in:

You can set what type of tests to use but I’ve not bothered to customise mine. I like the random mix it gives you.

You can also set what time you’d like a reminder to review your words and to learn new ones. I have mine set to learn 5 new words, review 10 old words, every day at 5:00pm (when I’m usually on the bus).

I have a terrible memory so I need constant revision. It’s only the unusual or near-useless words that seem to stick in my brain (きてき kiteki – a train whistle).

So, those are a couple of apps I’ve found handy. Now, it’s time to study.