The following is a lost episode from Huckleberry’s podcast series. It’s been dug up from early November, 2020. 

Pen Ginichiro has sacrificed an afternoon to writing out the transcript below. 

Well, you can’t really go shopping now that a gob of egg yolk has tainted the crotch of your jeans, now can you?

Poached egg yolk had apparently lept from the purchase of the springy udon noodles making the Kessel Run through my lips and into my gullet.

Dab, don’t smear.

But the deed was done. Now I had the most suspicious stain mark on my upper left thigh. 

This, folks, is how my evening started. 

And it’s ending back in ‘the cubicle.’ Three walls, a futon, a light, and a heartily frosted window playing clueless third wheel to my day-dates with the sun. 

It’s sincerely hard to focus. 

Doing what I can, drawing what I can from the drapes. While I’m feeling more and more on top of things as we round out the last third of the semester, I would be lying to say that it’s a total breeze. 

Got a lot nagging on me – things that can’t wait on Corona to simply pass on over. Recontracting requirements are time consuming.

…All and everything is done within this small apartment room – no matter how you slice it – when there’s this much work to do all play gets tainted with the ghost of Christmas exploitation… 

…As you play guitar, that smudge stain hits the corner of your eye and distracts you from the burst-flury of Bach-ish 32-second note runs. 

“Research” “Grading” “Both teaching and taking online courses” 

All this, so much smudge and stain. 

I’ve been risking leisure outside the home by jimminy-gym’ing. Risking to weigh possible exposure to coronavirus against the mental and physical stability it brings to this one frosted window weary sun-deprived screen leech. I didn’t know phosphorescent opals could chase this deep. Right?

It seems being holed up in this room everyday is already doing a number on my sleep as it is. Without the exercise, I can’t imagine what life rhythm I’d be slacking. It’s a get up and work till 4, 5, 9? Depends on the weekday. 

To think I grew up purposefully deciding to pursue careers which wouldn’t bind me to a chair and hunched over computer all day – but here we are. Here I am. Bound even in leisure to the screen fiend. 

Alright, let’s get to the first question of the night.

From listener name, ‘Sir Chuck.’

“You’ve been in Kawagoe for 8, 9 months now? I don’t think you’ve told us much about the town, yet. If you would, could you tell us what it’s like?”

Excellent request, Chuck. It’s a small town on the fringe of the Tokyo metropolitan sprawl. Oddly, it retains architecture from several distinct eras in Japan. A day’s walk around town and your eyes will staycate roughly in the 1700’s, 1910’s, 1950’s, 1980’s, and 2010’s. The parts of town are designated by these eras: pre-Edo, Edo, Taisho, Showa, Heisei, Reiwa. No one talks of Crea Mall (Claire Mall) as the “Historical Heisei Street,” and no one talks of the modern leisure temples south-west of the station as the “Historical Reiwa Town,” but that’s just a matter of cosmic perspective. Check back in several decades. You’ll see what I mean. 

Point is, this place is deeply historical and – subsequently – the ‘old town’ has lots of tourism and – subsequently – the city in general is bursting at the seams with nice restaurants (no matter your budget). Reason is, these restaurants all have to satisfy what is perhaps the most aesthetically demanding bourgeois on the planet: the Tokyo Metropolitan’s Middle Class. The food here will surpass your expectations given the town’s relative ‘remoteness’ (a whopping 40-45 minute train ride away from the central Tokyo Metropolis). I suppose that also hinges on how seriously you actually invest yourself into learning about and taking part in the local culture (i.e., not being a colonial imperialist) and/or your attitude towards using whatever Japanese skills you do have. 

I can’t stress enough how lucky I am to be here. Yes, lucky of course in so many other ways: a killer job situation, stable and above subsistence salary, health insurance, pension plan, good health, as well as pretty much my entire lucky life leading up to this moment. Yet, I certainly did not expect to land in a city with so much good food to be had – whether as street food or in a restaurant. When I moved in my main priority was, “Ain’t no way I’m commuting two hours a day for work.” So I moved to the town one station away from campus. Guess I got lucky. Culinarily speaking, there’s everything from multi-generation maintained eel restaurants(1, 2, 3, 4),  high end sushi, less expensive and edomae-style sushi (1, 2, 3), Kappou Ryori (Traditional Japanese cuisine. Here’s another Kappou joint.  This other Kappo Ryori restaurant has a wide menu including Kaiseki), Ryoutei and Kaiseki Ryori (Also, traditional Japanese cuisine. This place is a ceramic shop which both serves Kaiseki Ryori as well as offers pottery wheel experiences. I haven’t had their food…yet.), exquisitely prepared French cuisine (1, 2, 3),  to ‘New-Japanese’ woodfire delights using local Saitama produce, to traditional tea + Japanese garden experiences,  to deep fried shumai on a stick. Yeah. Deep. Fried. Shumai. On a stick. There’s so much more I won’t even attempt to condense it all into one blog post. The items listed above aren’t even the half of an eighth of Kawagoe’s food scene. 

The center of the town is essentially structured around the 3 main streets leading north from the main station to the part of town which retains a healthy dose of old Edo era (1603 – 1868) merchant buildings. Kawagoe was a stop from many places on the way into Edo (what is modern day Tokyo). Subsequently, a successful merchant community prospered there and with their wealth they built hefty houses to protect their goods. These houses are effectively a fusion between ‘kura’ or warehouses and well to do estates. They are still quite impressive. 

Throughout Kawagoe you’ll find well maintained or repaired temples and shrines. Some of them are quite famous, honestly. New Year’s Day here was insane when I came January 1st, 2020. The city was flooded with people going to hatsumoude (ritual first trip to a shrine/temple in the new year, in modern times typically done on January 1st.) Some of the shrines that were packed include Hachimangu, Kumano Jinja, Hyouga Jinja, Renkeiji, and Kita-in. There’s architecture here at Kita-in (a Buddhist temple) that was physically moved here from the Edo Castle by none other than the Tokugawa Ieyasu (You may not know this historical figure, but let’s just say that the Tokugawa family was a pretty big deal). Kita-in itself and the surrounding area has a wide variety of historical pleasures which really deserves it’s own blog post / podcast episode.  

As long as you keep your north and south bearings, Kawagoe makes for a truly pleasant town to walk around. As you’d expect of a Japanese town, there are endless safe alleys that bleed off the main streets between the station and Old Edo: most of the alleys hide something unexpected and delightful. For example, a dried flower shop + coffee stand who’s interior was constructed to like an old Japanese home.

Two things to look out for in Kawagoe are craft stores (For example, there’s an excellent shop which makes beautiful handmade cloth book covers, stationery, and traditional painted masks) and traditional candy/snack shops. If Dalgone alley was about candy and snacks instead of magic, and set in the 1600’s Japan, it would be Kashiya Yokocho in Kawagoe. 

I think that gives a messy idea of what the town is like, but – to be fair – there’s shockingly much more to this town than you might think even after a couple of visits. If possible, one day, I’d like to have you all visit! It is an absolutely charming city. Until then 〜

Alright, on to the next letter from the audience. 

From listener name, ‘HangTen.’ 

“AJ, when have you felt extremely lucky? Also, what was difficult for you when you first started learning Japanese?”

Excellent questions. As I said before in response to Sir Chuck (see response above), I feel grateful for the luck I’ve enjoyed in life – throughout. And it has been immense. But, I don’t think that’s what your question is really about. Kind of like when people ask an ice-breaker like, “What would you do if you had 5 million dollars?” If you answer too seriously like, “I’d give half of it away to a good cause and then invest the other half in another good cause’s development,” then it kind of kills the mood. Sure, we all know what the ‘morally’ correct thing to do is. But, that’s not really the type of conversation an ice-breaker is looking for. 

So, one of the times in my life that I felt truly lucky was when I was about 16 years old. At that time I was looking to buy a new electric guitar. One day at a shop I was testing out a few guitars when I noticed an extremely nice studio-musician level guitar that was nearly half off. It was sleek, fast, sounded great, offered a variety of tones, and felt good to play. I noticed that the tremolo arm rocked significantly in its socket before it would stretch the pitch of the strings, but – other than that – it was in perfect condition. More importantly, it provided both the exact sounds I was looking to get out of a guitar as well as the perfect physical playability. 

I asked a staff member in the shop why the guitar was discounted so heavily. 

“The vibrato arm is broken. With this type of bridge, a broken tremolo arm isn’t an easy sell,” he told me. 

I smiled a most devilish smile and thanked him. As the staff walked away, I unscrewed the tremolo arm from the bridge of the electric guitar. After unscrewing the cap, I pulled the vibrato arm out. In the socket, there was quite clearly space for a single washer missing. 

I looked up. 

I looked around. 

Had no one thought that something so simple could be the cause of this ‘defective guitar’? 

Like hell I would tell them, though. 

Instead, I bought it right there and then. The price was reduced by about 600 dollars. 

On the way home, I stopped by a shop to get a single washer. It cost me a few cents. 

I got home, installed the washer in the socket of the guitar’s bridge, inserted the tremolo arm, screwed on the cap, and played the hell out of that incredible guitar. 

I’d say I was pretty lucky to get the electric guitar of my dreams at a price I could afford just by noticing that a single washer was missing from the interior of the guitar.  

Now, on to the difficulties of learning a language. 

Sorry, HangTen, but I started learning Japanese a little over a decade ago so I am probably out of touch with some of the initial difficulties I faced. 

Naturally, learning kanji was difficult. But, the grammar of Japanese seemed really straightforward to me – generally. Apparently, I often mixed up usage of intransitive and transitive verbs without knowing it (決める、決まる?始まる、始める?). I still mix intransitive and transitive up from time to time! In fact, I make mistakes speaking all the time.

When I first started learning Japanese I had an ideal learning environment: lots of time to practice (not study, but practice! …and with enthusiasm…), superb teachers, an excellent learning program at university, personal diligence, access to coffee and study spaces at any hour of day, access to a wide variety of both media and genres (music, tv shows, anime, manga, books, novels, etc.), and conversation partners to chat with. At first, I remember learning Japanese being something into which I poured a lot of effort and joy, but I don’t remember it being difficult. I guess I still feel this way. In fact, of the three languages I know, Japanese comes to me most naturally – though not most idiomatically (English) and not most embodied (Spanish: Boy oh boy, don’t talk to me when I have a hangover, unless you want to talk to me in Spanish). For me, Japanese might also be the language I have the most fun using – and that’s important. Conversations in English are – as part and parcel of many English speaking cultures – insufferably egocentric and wrapped up in incessant power plays. It’s exhausting. It’s also literally my job to teach English so when I’m not ‘at work,’ I’d rather not ‘English’ off the clock. 

However, and here’s my warning to you, HangTen, the most difficult part of ‘learning’ Japanese came after all the time and resources disappeared. After graduating from university, there was far less time to pursue anything outside of working to pay rent, there were no teachers to guide you & cheer you on, there were far less resources available (Graduated? Goodbye Japanese library access!).

At that point, I could make time for personal study but I didn’t have much opportunity to physically speak. So, for the past…eight years…?…I’ve had an ungodly amount of exposure to Japanese in the written word. I’ve read all kinds of things from the poppiest of pop-culture to graduate school seminars reading Japanese literature dealing with the aftermath of 3.11 (東日本大震災, East Japan Triple Disaster of Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Disaster)  . 

I’ve also read things I wasn’t really even ‘into’ like books called “fashion for middle aged men” (and I ended up enjoying it!). I’ve listened to podcasts which I would probably never have thought to listen to with themes like celebrity/reality tv gossip + 20-something hues (yutotawa), teenage humor (creepy nuts, all night nippon), absolutely inoffensive vanilla extreme discussions of what’s hip in Japan (hiiki biiki), 30-something dorks (Donguri FM), a comparably anarchical and unpredictable / hilarious should be manzai-comedy-duo podcast (maburu maaburu), unbearably plain celebrity talk shows (hoshino gen, all night nippon), and even Japanese idol talk shows (nogizaka, all night nippon). I’ve read books written for grade schoolers. I’ve read manga for kids. I’ve watched all manner of tv shows I never would have watched otherwise (which I can go into another time). I’ve read instruction manuals for whatever I purchase (I save these in a binder. Excellent grammar resource, my friends, when learning verbs in a new language.) I’ve read magazines themed for hobbies ‘I’m not entirely interested in.’ I’ve read the liner notes and lyrics to the cd’s I’ve rented from Tsutaya (also, renting music from random sections of random genres is a wonderful way to find new words, expressions, etc.) I’ve listened to pop songs I honestly ‘never want to hear again’ because they are so plastic, overproduced, rife with barrages of hollow harmonic moves, and lack genuine character: what’s that? you’re going to put The Official Hige Dandism’s Pretender on? Sure, why not, I don’t care. I don’t like it anyway. It doesn’t move me. … It’s a bit quiet though, don’t you think? …

Big language learning tip: devour everything. Even things you may think “aren’t you.”

I’ve self-studied for and passed first the JLPT N2 in 2015 and then the JLPT N1 in 2018. 

But, the most difficult thing for me is not learning new words, learning grammar, learning to comprehend fast speech, learning colloquial speech variations, or learning cultural nuances. 

The hardest thing – forever – has been balanced progress. And, right now, I feel the weight of incredibly imbalanced progress like a pile of bricks on my chest. Why? Over the past several years I haven’t had that much practice physically speaking at length on personal topics. Most of my verbal conversations in Japanese were about goal oriented tasks, dealing with bureaucracy, handling societal rituals, or discussing Japanese literature in graduate school. 

I can take you to the doctor and renew your visa like the brushing my teeth – almost without thinking. 

But, I have had so little opportunity to just speak at length with other people in Japanese about just whatever-the-hell (“shoot the shit”) and speak on personal experiences, stories, feelings,…that – despite an obnoxiously large vocabulary bank and grasp of formal grammar – at times it takes me great effort to verbalize at tempo with the Japanese people I speak with. I don’t mean at the bank, with the doctor, or with government workers. I mean with the people you have deep relationships with in life. This is most painfully evident when talking with my girlfriend now. 

Technically speaking, I should be able to communicate much better than I am; but, my progress since university until now has mainly been reading, writing, TEXTING (sweet Tokimo, so much texting), and impersonal ritual exchanges in society. My comprehension vastly outweighs my verbal production. And I don’t mean the type of verbal production that you think of or translate in your head first. I mean that instantaneous explosion of words that happens almost as a reflex – like a sneeze. Like speaking without thinking. We all know you should “think before you speak,” but to truly feel like you are gelling fluently with someone else in a new language, the words must be born of you like gestures are born of your body in response to your environment – like a hot frying pan in the kitchen. You don’t have to think how to move each individual muscle fiber, how to communicate to which nerves what needs to happen: something outside you ‘moves you,’ and you move almost reflexively in response. That is a level of fluency my written/typed Japanese has: my verbal Japanese (outside of formally bureaucratic situations [Thanks, JLPT!]) is not this ‘fluent’ at this moment. I was probably more verbally ‘fluent’ during university, despite having far less vocabulary, grammar, and cultural knowledge. 

[*In reading this now (January, 2021), I think this self description may be harsher than reality. In some ways, my verbal fluency has never been better. But, I guess that’s just the thing – proficiency is not a linear scale from 0 to 100, it’s an ecosystem in constant flux with the surrounding environment.]

This, for me, reflects one of the hardest things about learning a language: balanced progress. 

There are others who get in a ton of verbal production practice but fail to become functionally literate. This effectively bars them off from advancing their speech through studying the written word. 

Having balanced progress is not entirely within your control; but, make the best of what you can.

Seek out help when you can. 

Be diligent and consistent in your practice. 

Play the long game. 

Love the process. 

Don’t waste the opportunities you have. 

Enjoy the experience. 

Acquiring a new language is much more akin to becoming a professional athlete, a professional musician or dancer, or a highly skilled chef than it is to studying law in a seminar, studying math in a lecture, or learning chemistry in a laboratory. It takes uninterrupted and consistent ‘rehearsal,’ constant physical maintenance over a long period of time, and forever shooting for ‘what’s next.’ It takes both endlessly returning to the basics as well as a thirst for pushing your current ability further.  

Ok, HangTen, I hope that answers your questions!

Alright, well, that’s probably all the time we have today. 

If you have any questions you’d like answer on this blog/podcast, please send them to andrew.john.grimm@gmail.com. In the subject line, write: Dear Huckleberry.

I hope you’re all well and hanging in there. 

Catch you next time.