Tip 2: Learn Japanese: to make sure people can understand you on Shikoku, it is more than desirable to be able to make yourself know Japanese enough to speak it. The basics will suffice. In the route guide there are some general phrases with which will be of help in most situations. However, learning more is always better.
My study process in short
- Practice with basic terms from the route guide
- Learn new words with Duo Lingo
- Private lessons (from Maarten Liebregts)
- Practice more with Memrise
- Immerse yourself in Shikoku
Route guide as basis
In the back of the route guide there are a few useful terms and phrases. It’s nice to at least know those by heart. Knowing those makes it easier to interact with the Japanese. With this minimal basis you can tell them what you want yourself. This does not mean that you can understand what they say to you. Because Japanese people are quite adept at keeping their expressions in check, it usually is quite hard to deduct what the answer entails.
Locals barely speak English
I noticed how very few Japanese people on Shikoku (dared to) speak English. The youth receives English lessons, but in a very traditional manner. They have difficulty applying the knowledge into actually speaking English. Where we are used to watching English series on television, you will barely ever see that there.
In the hotels I would turn on the television pretty often. That was very good for my Japanese: enough to practice. The most useful items for me were the news and the weather forecasts.
Learn Japanese: during my train rides
During the preparation for my trip, I started learning Japanese with Duolingo. This app offers the opportunity to learn a basis from English to Japanese (And vice versa). On the train I worked through the lessons on the app. I quickly learned that using earphones is very useful (read: necessary) for understanding, and hearing, the proper pronunciation in a full coupé. I built up a decent vocabulary using it. For me, learning through the app lost its utility when I had to start with grammar, without having the basic rules explained to me first. And I was completely lost by the time I was expected to write in hiragana and kanji. That was too much.
Also, the fact that it is an English based app, created issues for me: I had to translate all of the words from Dutch into English, before I could find the Japanese words. In Japan it turned out that I was too busy with the double translation to be able to have a decent conversation.
Learn Japanese: private lessons
Because I also wanted to understand the structure of the language, I started looking for lessons soon after. In the Randstad, there are quite a few possibilities, but in the east of the country, they were tougher to find. In the end, I found Maarten Liebregts in Utrecht through the internet. He teaches/taught lessons in Japanese from ‘De Lik’, an old prison. It was an absolute joy to visit him, every time I came. Because of the setting of a private lesson, he could tailor the lessons to my needs. Because of that, I soon picked up on the structure of the language. All in all, I followed ten lessons, where I mostly practiced speaking. That provided me with the basis I was looking for and gave me (some) confidence to actually start conversations in Japan.
Learn Japanese: practice with Memrise
As additional support for the private lessons I used the app Memrise. Maarten had integrated the words and sentences of the first two study books into the app. During my train rides between Deventer and Utrecht I practised a lot. I loved listening to the pronunciation and training myself in the correct use and application of indicating pronouns.
Immersion on Shikoku
The most important teaching experience for me, however, has to be the way I immersed myself in the Japanese culture and language while there. Because few of the Japanese people on Shikoku (dare to) speak English, I was forced to. With the basics learned in my preparation as starting block, it took little time for me to pick up on things. Thanks to the television I picked up novel words, and in my conversations with locals I quickly learned to recognize what they were asking me and how I could best respond. In the end, I had a half hour long conversation with a rice farmer on my way back from temple 88 to temple 1. He gave me the most beautiful compliment I could have received: ”You are a young Anton Geesink! You immersed yourself in our culture and really look for a connection with us, the Japanese!”
Telephone calls are still out of reach
For me, calling turned out to be too much of a challenge. With a phone call, there are too many formal conventions and phrases to go along with that, which I cannot answer immediately and in the routine way that is expected. I also need the context and facial expressions of a conversation partner. That’s why I left the calling to the Japanese people I was in contact with. For my reservations I could almost always call on a monk in the nokyocho-office, a host or hostess in a Minshoku, or a fellow henro. And then it was especially useful to speak Japanese, so I could ask them the right questions!
Success with your preparation
Your learning process does not have mirror mine. Perhaps my tips have been helpful to you. My most important advice is to at least learn how to say sorry (sumimasen), thank you (arrigato gozaimasu), and good morning / afternoon (o-hayo goizaimasu/ Konnichiwa). You will see that’s enough to break the ice, and that you can also communicate with hand signs and pantomime!