A to Wa of Japan: Week 6

It’s time for A to Wa of Japan again! Last week’s post was about things beginning with え (e) and we looked at Enoshima (江の島). This week we are looking at things beginning with お (o). A big thank you to everyone who joined in with suggestions this week:

Zooming Japan suggested Onomichi (尾道) in Hiroshima Prefecture, onsen (温泉), Osaka (大阪) and Okinawa (沖縄); Kazue suggested Okinawa, okashi (おかし / sweets), omochi (おもち / mochi – a rice cake made from glutinous rice), ohashi (おはし / chopsticks), okaasan (おかあさん / mother), otousan (おとうさん / father), and osushi (おすし / sushi); Japan Australia suggested obi (帯 / sash worn with traditional clothing such as a kimono), oni (鬼 / demons from folklore), and Okayama (岡山); keiness suggested Odaiba (お台場 / an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, omikuji (おみくじ / paper fortunes), okaeshi (おかえし / obligatory return gift giving), and okonomiyaki (お好み焼き / a Japanese dish); Francoise suggested the honorific おOdori Park (大通公園) in Sapporo, and okonomiyaki; Jay Dee suggested omikuji, omuraisu (オムライス / omelette with rice), oshibori (おしぼり / wet hand towel), Oita (大分), and ocha (お茶); and UK Seikatsu suggested the honorific お, onigiri (おにぎり/ Rice ball), Okinawa (沖縄), oiran (花魁 / courtesans in Japan), Oomisoka (大晦日 / New’s Year’s Eve), osechi (おせち/ Japanese traditional New Year dishes), obanzai (おばんざい / traditional common dishes in Kyoto), Oh Sadaharu (王貞治 / a baseball player), Otsuka Ai (大塚愛 / a J-Pop star), and Osaka (大阪).

As usual, I’m astounded by all of your wonderful suggestions and could happily spend the entire week writing about all of the topics above, if only I had the time. Unfortunately there’s not time to cover them all today though, so I will focus briefly on the three that most caught my attention…

The honorific お

I’ll only talk briefly about this because otherwise it will turn out to be a whole post about Japanese language, and I’d like to get some other topics covered today. But, basically, when you start learning Japanese you’ll soon notice that a lot of words start with ‘o’, or at least they can start with ‘o’. Sushi is a good example – usually we just say ‘sushi’ (すし), but actually you can also say o-sushi (おすし), which gives the word a higher status. Some words almost always take on the honorific ‘o’, like ‘okaasan’ (おかあさん), meaning ‘mother’, whereas others, like ‘o-hashi’ (おはし), ‘chopsticks’, are perfectly fine without the ‘o’.

Japanese honorific language is a complicated subject, and one best left for another post, I think, but it is something which is important to be aware of. If you find yourself in a formal situation in Japan, listen out for the ‘o’s, and you might find you understand more than you think you do. One important thing to remember about all honorific language in Japan is that you should use it towards others, and not about yourself. Just as you wouldn’t add ‘-san’ (さん) to your own name, you also wouldn’t refer to something belonging to you or made by you with the honorific ‘o’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that sometimes ‘go’ is used instead of ‘o’. For example, if you’re referring to someone else’s family, you can say ‘go-kazoku’, but you would not say ‘o-kazoku’, and remember, you would simply use ‘kazoku’ when talking about your own family.

Oshibori (おしぼり)

The oshibori is something I really miss about Japan and, having experienced them, I just can’t understand why all countries don’t have them. The oshibori is a wet hand towel, found in restaurants all across Japan. In fast food restaurants and cheap places, you will usually find wet wipe-like tissues sealed in plastic bags are given to you with your food. In izakayas (Japanese bars) and nicer restaurants, these towels will often be actual towels (like flannels), which are served to you by the waiter/waitress. They are usually warm, but in the summer you will sometimes find they are icy cold. Sometimes they come sealed in plastic bags, even if they are actual cloth towels.


(Image source)

There’s a certain etiquette surrounding the use of oshibori. Men can usually get away with wiping their entire faces with the towels (although perhaps not in very nice restaurants), whereas women should not. The reason is probably to do with make-up, but also just that it’s seen as male behaviour to wipe one’s face in such a way in public. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I was a man when I was handed a steaming hot oshibori though!

Incidentally, the ‘o’ of ‘oshibori’ is an honorific ‘o’. The word originally comes from ‘shiboru’ (絞る), which means ‘to wring.

As well as being very useful for cleaning your hands as face, oshibori can also provide amusing entertainment in the form of oshibori origami…

Oshibori duck

Otsuka Ai (大塚愛)

Otsuka Ai is a J-pop star who will always hold a special place in my heart. You see, she was the first one I ever really discovered. I distinctly remember my friend who lived in Japan coming back to England to visit and bringing me copies of her music to listen to, before I had even been to Japan myself. I instantly fell in love with her quirky style and, although I couldn’t understand the lyrics, I loved the sound.

Otsuka Ai - Sakuranbo

(Image source)

Her most well-known and popular single was probably Sakuranbo (さくらんぼ), which is really catchy:

Now when I listen to Otsuka Ai, I find that I can understand some of the lyrics and a lot of them are really sweet or funny. She seems to sing about food a lot, especially on her albums Love Punch (2004), Love Jam (2004) and Love Cook (2005).

Otsuka Ai - Love Jam

(Image source)

Most of her music is infectiously happy and a little bit silly…

She also does kawaii (cute) very well…

Otsuka Ai released her first single in 2003 and is still recording today. In fact, last year she announced that she would be joining a new band called Rabbit as their vocalist. Their album,  裸人 / Naked People, was released in December. It doesn’t look like it’s available here in the UK, but here’s a preview:


Next week we’ll start with か (ka), so please leave a comment below suggesting a topic for things beginning with か. Topics can be anything, as long as they are connected to Japan – food, places, people, characters, whatever you want to hear about! Just remember that the words you suggest must be Japanese (for example, you can’t suggest ‘kale’ (a kind of cabbage) for ‘ka’, because ‘kale’ in Japanese is ‘ke-ru’, but you could suggest ‘kakigori’, which is a refreshing icy dessert.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions!  (*^_^)v

12 thoughts on “A to Wa of Japan: Week 6

  1. I love Otsuka Ai! ^_____^
    Thanks for this great post!

    So, next time it’s “ka”, here we go:
    Kagoshima (city or prefecture), Kagawa Prefecture, Kanto (region), Karaoke, Kawaguchiko, Kamakura, KAT-TUN (Johnnys) ….
    Ok, there’s much more, but that should be enough for the time being! ^__^;


  2. Otsuka Ai was really popular when I was teaching at JHS in Japan. She is still around now and I just saw her the other day perform with Rabbit. A few suggestions for “ka” include:



  3. Great one. Also, oshibori can be found in barbershops. I’ve been offered them before getting my hair cut.

    So, ka. What should I suggest? Of course, Kamakura, where I lived for 4 years. Katori Shingo, a member of SMAP. Kawasaki, both a city and a company. Kamaboko is fishy stuff. Kani, or crab. Kasutera ke-ki, or Castella Cake, which is popular in Japan. Kanazawa, a famous city in Ishikawa. Can’t forget karaoke and karaage. I could keep going because there are a lot of “ka” words.


  4. Oshibori! Nice choice, Ali!

    Word start with か
    Kamikaze(神風/ divine wind), Karei(カレー/ Curry)、Karuta(カルタ/ Card game, original word from Portuguese)、Karate(空手 / Japanese Martial Art)、Katana(刀/ Japanese sword)、Kappa(河童/ Japanese folklore)、Kakizome(書き初め/ the first calligraphy written at beginning of a year)、Kaiseki Ryouri(懐石料理/ Traditional multi-course Japanese dinners)、Katsu Shintaro(勝新太郎/ Japanese actor, singer, producer. famous for the Zatoichi series)、GACKT(ガクト/ Japanese singer-songwriter, actor. Start with not か、but が)、Carmen Maki(カルメン・マキ/ Japanese singer, Carmen Maki & Oz was quite well known rock band in 70’s)、Gustank(ガスタンク/ Japanese Hardcore/Heavy Metal band in 80’s. It was said that they influenced to X JAPAN, DEAD END, L’Arc〜en〜Ciel, Kuroyume etc)


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