Winter Sounds in Japan

There are a lot of uniquely Japanese sounds.  But the two I'm writing about today appear on cold winter nights, and echo eerily through the dark, empty streets between dinner and bedtime.

Yaki-imo Wagons
Japanese winters are cold.  They're not -30C cold, but what they do have on Canadian winters is how drafty Japanese houses tend to be, and the distinct lack of central heating.  All across the country the appearance of convenience store oden and yaki-imo wagons mark the arrival of winter.

Yaki-imo are sweet potatoes roasted over flames in wood fired ovens in small mobile carts or trucks.  They're served up wrapped in newspaper, and are not only delicious, but keep your hands warm too.  But the most distinctive thing about yaki-imo is that the sellers sing a very distinct yaki-imo song.  They typically make the rounds until just after dinner time, and I always found their song a bit eerie drifting though the dark streets.

Hi no Youjin
Central heating is near non-existent in Japan, one result of which is the kotatsu, but another is that kerosene and gas heaters are still commonly used for heating.  Every year, housefires result from people forgetting to shut of their heaters before bed.  As a reminder to shut off the heaters, people walk through town late at night, carrying lanterns and clacking wooden blocks together, calling out hi no youjin: be careful with fire.  The sound of the blocks typically carries for many blocks, and you often hear their calls echoing through town, coming and going for up to half an hour as you lay in bed.


Installing uim-mozc on Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal)

If you're like me, one of the first things you do when you install a fresh Linux distribution is to install a decent Japanese IME.  Ubuntu defaults to ibus-anthy, but I personally prefer uim-mozc, and that's what I'm going to show you how to install here.

Update (2011-05-01): Found an older video tutorial on YouTube which provides an alternative (and potentially more comprehensive) solution for Japanese support on 10.10, but using ibus instead of uim.

Japanese Input Basics
Before we get going, let's understand a bit about how Japanese input works on computers.  Japanese comprises three main character sets: the two phonetic character sets, hiragana and katakana at 50 characters each, plus many thousands of Kanji, each with multiple readings.  Clearly a full keyboard is impractical, so a mapping is required.

Input happens in two steps.  First, you input the text phonetically, then you convert it to a mix of kanji and kana.

Over the years, two main mechanisms evolved to input kana.  The first was common on old wapuro, and assigns a kana to each key on the keyboard - e.g. where the A key appears on a QWERTY keyboard, you'll find a ち.  This is how our grandparents hacked out articles for the local shinbun, but I suspect only a few die-hard traditionalists still do this.  The second and more common method is literal transliteration of roman characters into kana.  You type fujisan and out comes ふじさん.

Once the phonetic kana have been input, you execute a conversion step wherein the input is transformed into the appropriate mix of kanji and kana.  Given the large number of homonyms in Japanese, this step often involves disambiguating your input by selecting the intended kanji.  For example, the mita in eiga wo mita (I watched a movie) is properly rendered as 観た whereas the mita in kuruma wo mita (I saw a car) should be 見た, and in neither case is it mita as in the place name Mita-bashi (Mita bridge) which is written 三田.