Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese


Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.

In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.

Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn in Japanese

Here, you can see:

  • The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
  • To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
  • On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.

These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.

Sometimes the notation can get very complicated…

Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. :)

On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).

Buddhist chanting page with tonal marks.

This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).

But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.

If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.

Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.

For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. :)

Good luck!

Posted in Buddhism, Chinese, Japanese, Language, Religion | Leave a comment

Girls Day 2015 Wrap-up

Hello Everyone,

Just to wrap up Girls Day, I wanted to post some photos of our dinner. I left work a bit early today so I could be home on time for dinner. Because it is Girls Day, a Japanese traditional holiday celebrating young ladies, my wife made a nice, traditional dinner. Here is the chirashi:

Hinamatsuri Chirashi

This is sushi rice, topped with Bluefin Tuna (maguro), boiled shrimp, cooked egg, and ikura or fish eggs. She used a round cake pan to make the shape, which was clever. :)

She also made a nice boiled Manila clams:


We also had some clam soup made with shiradashi (白だし), which is like regular dashi-fish broth, but has a lighter flavor and comes in liquid form, not powder. Thus the soup is often clear with a lighter, less salty flavor. Really nice, traditional soups often seem to use shiradashi.

Little Guy is too young to eat any of this, so he got his own special meal of rice balls, spinach and a little bit of Chirashi:


This is Little Guy’s favorite plate because he loves the cartoon Anpanman. His favorite character is Baikinman (the purple character at the top). When he sees Baikinman, he grunts really loud because he’s trying to imitate Baikinman’s voice. I will make a video of it someday, hopefully. It’s really funny.

Princess was a little spoiled today. She got to have extra treats, drinks she likes, etc.

Finally we ended the evening by dancing in the living room to CNBlue’s song “L.O.V.E. Girl“. Certain ladies in the house are all fans of Jung Young-hwa.1 ;)

Both Princess and Little Guy like to sing in microphones or dance silly. Little Guy is still too young to stand up and walk, so he just sits and wiggles his arms when he wants to dance. I do silly dancing for the kids and wife, which everyone enjoys.

Anyhow, it was fun family evening.

Hope you ladies all had a good day too.

1 Actually I like CN Blue also because they’re a good Korean rock group, but also not too corporate either. More recent songs like Hey You are quite fun to listen to.

Posted in Cooking, Family, Japan | Leave a comment

Shogi and Castling II

Lately, I’ve been regularly playing Shogi with a Japanese co-worker. My skills are rusty because I haven’t played in years, but lately I’ve been researching strategy on Japanese websites. Previously I had to use English-resources but they are very limited. They explain some basic strategy, but often lack detail.

So I wanted to share more information about castles in Shogi. I wrote a much older post, but the details were limited. This post supersedes that one. :)

Castles (gakoi 囲い) in Shogi serve two purposes:

  1. They protect your king by moving him away from the center.
  2. They line up other pieces for a concerted attack.

So, when you decide what castle to make (if any), you should consider both. Which will protect your king the best? Which one will move the pieces in the best position in relation to where the opponents king is? Many attacks in Shogi involve a coordinated attack using your rook (飛車, hisha), so it’s helpful to line up your rook someplace it can threaten the enemy king somehow. That way, it can protect other, weaker pieces that advance first.

The are two “regions” to put your rook:

  • Ibisha (居飛車), which means it stays in its original position, on the right-side of the board.
  • Furibisha (振り飛車), which means it crosses over to the left side of the board.

You can see more diagrams on this Japanese website (scroll toward the bottom).

There are 4 castles typically:

  • Mino Gakoi (美濃囲い) – A relatively quick castle to assemble, plus it lines up your rook on the left side of the board (furibisha). This one is popular and often mentioned in English-language texts.
  • Yagura Gakoi (矢倉囲い) – A large complex castle that is popular in Shogi. It also has many variations, and is complex to setup. This one takes practice. It is an ibisha castle.
  • Funa Gakoi (舟囲い) – A smaller, quick castle. Easy to setup, but not as difficult to break through. Like the Mino Gakoi, this might be a good beginner’s castle though. This is an ibisha castle.
  • Anaguma Gakoi (穴熊囲い) – This castle can be setup on either side, and is thus flexible. The catch is that this castle takes a lot of work to setup, but buries your king way in the corner and is thus difficult to break through.

However, each castle often has slightly “alternate” forms, which you should use depending on your situation. For this post though, we’ll focus on just the standard forms.

Mino Gakoi

Shogi Castling

This is my personal favorite. It doesn’t take long to setup, but provides enough defense to keep most players safe. If you see your opponent moving his king to the left (your left, his right), consider using this castle to shift your rook (飛車) somewhere you can threaten him, while moving your own king further away.

The setup I use is:

  • Move the rook (飛車) all the way over to the 4th column from the left.
  • Move the king (王・玉) up-and-right, then two more moves to the right. It will sit where the rook used to be.
  • Move the right silver-general (銀将) up a square.
  • Move the left gold-general (金将) up-and-right.

Yagura Gakoi

Shogi Castling

The Yagura Gakoi, as stated above, is a stronger, more robust castle. If I’m playing an aggressive enemy, I’ve found this castle can take too long to setup, unless you do it in careful pieces (move a few pieces, attack, move some more). If your opponent is being defensive though, then you may want to use that chance to set this castle up. Here’s one suggested method I’ve used in the past:

  1. Move the 3rd column (from the left) pawn up first. This is the traditional bishop opening anyways.
  2. Move the left gold-general up-and-left, defending the bishop.
  3. Move the left silver-general up-and-right.
  4. Now move the 4th column pawn up.
  5. Move the left silver-general up-and-left, so it sits above the gold.
  6. Now move the bishop down-and-right, so it sits under the gold.
  7. Now move the 5th column pawn up. Your bishop now covers a nice diagonal across the middle of the board.
  8. Move the bishop up-and-right on square so it sits right of the gold-general.
  9. Now spend two moves moving the right gold general up-and-left so it sits above the bishop.
  10. Now spend three moves moving the king to the left where the bishop had started out.

Fune Gakoi

Shogi Castling: Fune Gakoi 舟囲い

The fune gakoi is another castle I like to use, especially if the opponent moves their king to the right (your right, their left). In such a case, the Mino Gakoi might not be sensible, so instead, I set this castle up.

The moves are fairly straightforward. Here’s one suggested approach:

  1. Move the king up-left and then left once more (2 moves).
  2. Move the right gold-general (金将) up and left (1 move).
  3. From the left, move the pawns in columns 1, 3 and 5 up one space. The jagged line will help discourage certain drops that could break your castle easily particular with knights.

Another alternative form I’ve seen is to also move the silver-general (銀将) up and right, then up one more. The pawn there has to move up as well to avoid blocking it. But once done this creates a strong deterrent for attacks to the right because the gold-general is double-protected.

Anaguma Gakoi

Shogi Castling

Shogi Castling

The “badger hole” castle is kind of an odd one. You can make it on either side, and it costs a lot of moves to make, but if you succeed, it is pretty hard to break through. I played one player and had to keep throwing pieces at until eventually I could break through. It was pretty time-consuming. Your mileage may vary of course. :)

Since there are multiple ways to make this castle, I will focus just on general steps:

  1. If making the castle to the right, first move your rook (飛車) over to the left side of the board. In other words, you’re playing furbish as mentioned above. If you make the castle on the left-side, move the 3rd column pawn up one space, and then put the bishop (kakugyō 角行) in its old spot. If you fail to remember this, you’re king will get tangled up and vulnerable.
  2. On the side you’re making the castle, move the lancer (kyōha 香車) up one space. This is really important as it lets the king hide in the deep corner of the board.
  3. Now move your king to that corner as soon as possible. This will cost several moves, so don’t do this unless your enemy is really defensive. Or, do it in pieces while still trying to push an attack on the other side.
  4. Next, move the closest silver-general (銀将) up and left (or up and right) to cover the king.
  5. To the left of the silver-general (or right), move both gold-generals to form a secondary wall, one directly above the other. Your other silver-general should be free for an attack on your opponent.


These guidelines are only suggestions. There are many variations to each castle, and as you use them, you learn to apply variations as your situation dictates. My own personal advice is to not always rely on one castle. Get to know their strengths and weakness and see what your opponent is doing, then decide what’s best for you.

Shogi is a game that favors aggressive (though smart) players, so always remember to keep pushing an attack even while building up defenses. Otherwise, even the best castle will be besieged and destroyed.

Good luck!

P.S. For non-shoji readers, I’ll post other stuff this week. :)

Posted in Shogi | Leave a comment

RIP Spock

Spock and the Vulcan Salute in Star Trek IV

Today, I was surprised and saddened to hear the news that actor Leonard Nimoy has died. His character, Spock, was a role model for an impressionable teenage boy who didn’t have many role models. He taught the value of helping others, using logic and reason, not superstition, and the virtues of self-discipline.

But, as Spock would say:1

Change is the essential process of all existence.

Live Long And Prosper, Spock, wherever you are now.

1 Similar quotes here and here.

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Better Late Than Never: Girl’s Day 2015


This year has been hectic but I finally put together for the Japanese holiday of hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) or Girls’ Day. Girls’ Day is on March 3rd.

According to tradition, the best time to assemble the doll set is after Setsubun, which was 3 weeks ago. Similarly, you should take down the doll set soon after Girls’ Day to ensure your daughter will soon find a husband and a happy marriage.1

We are looking forward to Girls’ Day. My wife always cooks great food, I get to eat sakuramochi and we can celebrate our wonderful daughter’s life and look forward to a happy future.

I remember when she was just a little baby with funky hair that wouldn’t lay down. Now she’s 8, tall, beautiful but also nerdy like her father. It’s amazing how much she’s grown. Someday, she will get go to college and get married. *sigh*

Anyhow, I sound like oyabaka (親バカ), a silly dottering parent. I’m looking forward to Girls’ Day and I hope you are too.

1 Subconsciously, maybe I don’t want my daughter to get married, perhaps. ;-)

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How To Make a Japanese-Style Haiku

Recently my wife and I were talking with our daughter, “Princess”, about haiku poetry. Princess learns both Japanese and English so she is aware of haikus but didn’t really know how to make one. So we talked about the rules behind haiku.

A haiku (俳句) is a kind of short poem that started out as the opening lines of “linked-verse” poems called renga (連歌). However by the 16th century they became poems of their own, and were popularized by Matsuō Basho and Kobayashi Issa.

Normally when Westerners think of haiku, they think of poems with 5-7-5 syllables. This is true, but haikus also have traditional styles, techniques and rules to follow. You could ignore the rules, but your poem might have less impact. There are good English-language resources on haiku, but I felt like researching in Japanese for language-practice and “getting to the source”.

I found one particularly good webpage, written for young adults (easier for me to read ;-p ) that provided very helpful explanations. Here’s what I learned.

Haiku have a few things to note:

  • Syllables – As mentioned above, the syllables are usually 5-7-5. Sometimes you can have poems that are one syllable too many, or too few. These are called jiamari (字余り) and jitarazu (字足らず) respectively.
  • Seasonal words – Haiku almost always allude to a particular season using certain words. For example, plum blossoms can be mean early spring or end of winter, cherry blossoms for late spring, plover birds for winter, and so on. These seasonal words are called kigo (季語). Nowadays, it’s not strictly necessary to have them, but it’s still the most popular form. For Westerners, you can probably use seasonal words that match your culture instead like lemonade for summer, Christmas trees for winter, etc.
  • Hanging ending – Many haiku have a kind of “hanging” ending for extra effect. You’re leaving it open to the reader, in other words. Japanese haiku use kireji (切れ字) or certain punctuation words to do this, but they usually don’t exist in English. But you can still make the same effect in English though without them. You just have to be more creative.

Also, as for composing haiku, the website had some great advice. Imagine a story like so:

Yesterday, I went to the park with my friends. It was a very sunny day. I saw lots of people in the park playing with their dog, cooking barbecue, and throwing frisbees. We stayed until sunset and then went home.

Now here’s another version:

It was a sunny day, when the man went to the park with the sounds of people playing with their dogs and throwing frisbees. The smell of barbecue wafted in the breeze. By sunset it was time to go home.

And finally:

Wafting in the breeze,
Warm charcoal and barbecue;
A mid-summer’s day.

The first version is something you might read in a journal or blog. The second version is more like a novel, and the last version of the same story is poetic. I wrote these in a hurry, so they’re terrible, but it shows how to express the same story in different ways.

This is a good exercise for writing haiku too, I think. I’ve been trying it lately. :)

So anyhow, that’s some tips on writing haiku in a more Japanese-style. Good luck and happy writing!

Posted in Japan, Poetry | 2 Comments

Setsubun 2015 Fail


I wanted to post a funny video my wife took for this year’s Setsubun holiday. As readers might remember, there is a tradition called mamemaki (豆まき) which kids often do. Someone wears a mask to look like an oni ( 鬼, “ogre”) and kids will throw roasted soybeans at them. Kids will recite “oni wa soto!” meaning “oni go out!” followed by “fuku wa uchi” or “luck come in!”.

I always dress up as the oni every year. This is the video from 2 years ago:

…and here’s this year’s video:

If you listen carefully you can hear me hit my head at 00:19. You can’t see it from the video, but our barbecue grill is there, and while pretending to die, I hit my head on the edge of the handle. It really hurt.

Also, Princess is now 8 years old, and she throws those beans pretty hard. ;)

So that’s Setsubun 2015 at our house. How was your Setsubun? :P

Posted in Family, Japan