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Making Soba and Picking Peaches

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Today, we bring you another blog post from Motoko, JapanesePod101.com lesson creator, host and Office Party Planner! Motoko will be sharing more bilingual posts on our blog, so check back often and leave a comment!

Hi everyone, Motoko here!

In the beginning of summer this year, the Innovative Language staff went on a day trip. Today I’d like to talk about that. We chose peach-picking for fun, and soba-making so that everyone could try a traditional Japanese food! We made soba in a wonderful nihon-kaoku, a traditional type of Japanese house.

Do you know what soba is? Soba is a famous type of noodle in Japan that is a greyish-brown color. It gets this color from a special type of flour called sobako that is used to make it. You dip the boiled soba into a dip called tsuyu made from fish broth, and eat it. Adding onions and wasabi to the tsuyu give it a more grown-up flavor. Soba comes in two types: cold zarusoba, and warm kakesoba, but this time we had zarusoba.

Soba is made from sobako and flour. First, you mix the two types of flour into a large bowl called a hachi. You can use chopsticks, but it seems like it’s more common to use your hands. Next, you add water. Then comes the hard part – you have to then knead the soba dough a lot. The teacher made it look easy, but it requires a lot of strength since the dough is not that soft. Apparently, the action of kneading the dough is an important step to making delicious soba. Once you’re done kneading, you flatten the dough with a rolling pin. Then, you place the soba on a wooden board called a komaita, and cut it with a special knife called a bocho. If you cut it thinly, you get great soba. If you cut it thickly, you get soba that looks like udon. (Which still tastes good…it just might be a little hard.)

Everyone worked hard at making soba, getting themselves covered with flour in the process. After making it, we boiled it and ate it ourselves. Because the noodles are raw, they take only a minute and a half to cook. Soon after boiling them, you do what’s called shimeru in Japanese. Shimeru refers to rinsing the noodles with cold water so that they don’t get too soft. When you do this, it gives the noodles a nice chewy texture. This isn’t done with Italian pasta!

Then we got on the bus to go peach-picking. Is it common to go fruit-picking in your country? In Japan, there are a lot of opportunities for fruit-picking that change with the seasons. Cherry-picking, peach-picking, grape-picking, and pear-picking are some of the well-known ones. You go to the field to pick and eat a lot – depending on the place, there may be a limit to how much you can eat. The place we went had an all-you-can-eat deal that lasted for 40 minutes. For 40 minutes, you can pick and eat as much as you want. Apparently, the good peaches are at the ends of the branches, so everyone tried hard to get the highest ones.

The person who ate the most was a family member of one our Innovative Language staff. They ate seven peaches in 40 minutes! As for me, I ate three. The peaches I chose were big, so even after just three, I was really full!

Readers, you should definitely try your hand at making Japanese food – not just eating it. I had never made soba before, and I’m Japanese! It’s sure to be a memorable experience.

A Trip to the Baseball Game

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Today, we bring you another blog post from Motoko, JapanesePod101.com lesson creator, host and Office Party Planner! Motoko will be sharing more bilingual posts on our blog, so check back often and leave a comment!

Hi all, Motoko here.

Today I’d like to tell you about the baseball game the Innovative Language team went to at the end of September. But before I do, which sports are popular in your country? And do you know which sports are popular in Japan?

The answer is: soccer and baseball.

Soccer came to Japan because it was popular in Europe. Baseball, on the other hand, can be written in kanji (野球), and that’s because it was introduced to Japan much earlier than soccer was. In fact, it came to Japan in 1872. It is said that it started when an American man taught some Japanese college students how to play baseball.

Of course, playing baseball is quite popular, but also people young and old love watching it. Stadium tickets come in two types; one is “reserved seating” where you can choose where you’d like to sit ahead of time. Another is “non-reserved seating”, where you can choose where to sit on game day. The second kind is cheaper. Spectators drink beer, eat snacks, and watch the game. Throughout the game, staff (mostly ladies) carry beer tanks through the crowd, so you can easily get more beer without leaving your seat!

The game was held at Meiji Jingu stadium, which is close to Shibuya. The seating areas are divided among the two teams. In this stadium, the seats on the first-base side were for Yakult Swallows supporters, and the seats on the third-base side were for the opponent’s (Chunichi Dragons), supporters. So, if you’re cheering for the Swallows, you need to have a seat on the first-base side.

Speaking of cheering for the teams, we found some unique supporters’ gear to help us do just that. Some people had pairs of miniature plastic megaphones and made loud noises by beating them together. Other people had little umbrellas and danced with the cheering groups. Each baseball team has their own mascot. Tsubakuro is the mascot of the Yakult Swallows – “swallow” is tsubame in Japanese. Actually, the first baseball team ever to have a mascot was from Japan. Did you know that?

(Sep, 2012)

Japanesepod101.com Tokyo Office Visit Part 2

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Today, we bring you another blog post from Motoko, JapanesePod101.com lesson creator, host and Office Party Planner! Motoko will be sharing more bilingual posts on our blog, so check back often and leave a comment!

Hi everyone, Motoko here!

Today I’d like to tell you about another listener meetup we had.

The other day, we had two JapanesePod101.com listeners come to visit us. One was from Canada, and the other was from France. It was the second meetup for me, but I still felt nervous beforehand!

Andre from Canada, and Becher from France paid us a visit.

They met each other through their Japanese studies, and this was their first trip together – they were staying in Japan for two weeks. They told us that right before they came to the office, they had been shopping around in Akihabara, and also mentioned that they had visited Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, and had even climbed Mt. Fuji! I’ve never climbed Mt. Fuji, by the way. I was surprised to learn that they had gotten around to it before me!

They were both very friendly, and seemed excited about coming to Japan as well as visiting the Innovative Language office. Our office is not that big, and we have a small recording booth in the corner of the room. They seemed surprised at how compact it all was.

They also mentioned how hot Japan still was even though it was September. September is the first month of fall, but it’s still quite hot in Tokyo. There were even some days where the temperature reached 30 degrees  it might be an effect of global warming.

Andre said that he would make sure that his next trip was in winter. Not a bad idea!

The Innovative Language staff will be waiting for you the next time you come to Japan!(Sep, 2012)

Out From the Depths of the Innovative Language Learning Lab - Part Two

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Peter here! Want to know how and why it all started? Read today’s blog post to find out more about our humble beginnings. Thanks for stopping by to read and leave a comment to say hello!

A Bunch of Big Benchmarks

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200 Million Lessons Delivered, 150K YouTube Subscribers, and 50K Facebook Fans

Last month we hit all of these benchmarks.

These are 3 remarkable feats that everyone with a connection to our company and product should take a minute to reflect on and be extremely proud of.

But what does all of this mean?

Well,

  • For the PR people, a press release!
  • For the marketing team, a sale.
  • For the tech team, something about server load balance,
  • and for the financial guys, how is growth holding up?

For me, it is a chance to reflect.

The daily grind is grueling and our workload is no lighter because of these milestones, but these occasions give us a chance to climb out of the trenches and see how far we’ve come.

200 Million Now, but…it all started with one lesson

It’s kind of crazy. There were three things that fell into place to make the first lesson happen.

1. Aki Yoshikawa funding the show;

2. The first co-host, Natsuko, agreeing to do the show;

3. An acquaintance introducing me to a rehearsal studio, where we would record the shows.

1. I was a PhD student at a Japanese university working part-time at Aki’s translation company. Translation was her main business, but I noticed that she would sometimes entertain small pet projects. So I relentlessly pitched ideas to her every chance I had.  After about a year of this, one idea I had proposed appeared in a newspaper. That’s when she agreed to the next idea I pitched: Japanese language learning through podcasts.

2. Natsuko worked at the translation company. Her English is awesome, and she is very knowledgable. I knew she would be perfect! But…I had serious concerns about whether or not she would be worried about the exposure she would get by appearing in something so public. Some people really value their privacy! And if she said, “No,” the show was a no go! So, you could imagine I was very nervous before asking her. I had practiced my pitch, and came up with ways to rebut every concern she had. When the time came to ask her, she said, “Sure.” I was shocked! Reflecting back upon it, I think the fact that podcasting was still unknown helped my cause! In fact, I spoke to her recently and she had no idea her voice would go on to be heard by millions of people around the world!

3. Proper sound quality was achieved after an acquaintance at the company introduced us to a recording studio located near the office! We originally tried recording the lessons in an office room, but the quality was awful. He learned what were were trying to do, and he took us to the rehearsal studio where he would practice his shamisen (Japanese instrument) during his lunch hour. The place was close to the office, and the rooms were soundproof. The first lesson was recorded at the studio in the morning. Then it was edited back at a desk in a corner of Aki’s translation company in the afternoon, and sent out to the world by the end of the night!

You can listen to it below. Yes, that’s me and Natsuko!

The First Website

The lesson went out through an RSS feed on our first website, JapanesePod101.com. I still remember launching the first website. Flipping through the how-to-build-a-website book, I somehow managed to get it operational. However, JapanesePod101.com was a static website, so there was no way to leave a comment. Which means, there was no way for me to know if people were even listening to the lessons. I had to log into the website as an admin and look at “bandwidth used” statistics to see if lessons were actually being downloaded! The first day, there was one. Or at least I thought I had one, until I figured out it was actually me that downloaded it. But from there, a few lessons in the first week in December 2005 to 200 million this month!

I was quickly, and thankfully, relieved of CTO duties when long-time friend, and fellow Innovative Language Learning Co-Founder, Eran Dekel joined our team 2 weeks later.

Appreciation for Those Who Got Us There

First to our community, we thank you! You’ve supported us in our journey from a Japanese language learning company to a leading digital language learning company. We can only say thank you for your support, patience, and understanding. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but we have done and will continue to do our best to continue to provide innovative language learning products.

To our current team and all of our alumni, thank you! Please take a moment to reflect on the body of work we have created together. From the breakthroughs to the blowups, we value everything you have and continue to contribute to the community products and company. It has been a remarkable ride and we can only hope you are as proud as we are. We congratulate you, and please take a moment to congratulate one another.

Still A Lot of Work to Do

In early July, we launched 6 new language websites: Bulgarian, Finnish, Filipino, Norwegian, Turkish and Vietnamese. That’s a total of 27 language websites and products in 36 languages. (We also just quietly launched Korean, Cantonese and English Premium Plus products).

Is there more to do?

Of course, but thanks to your hard work and hunger to learn and apply, we’ve grown into a global language company. We started as a Japanese language learning company, and have evolved into a leading digital language learning company.There is a story behind every benchmark. I plan to continue sharing ours with you.

Listen to the very first lesson here.

Small Business Corporate Culture - All Hail the Fun Czarina!

Monday, June 25th, 2012

All Work and No Play

In the beginning, there were a lot of long hours, last trains and the occasional office sleep over! We worked hard, but played…not so much. I definitely deserve much of the blame for that. Seeing the world through sleep-deprived eyes tends to give one tunnel vision. And if you spend too much time focusing on external matters, the internal ones can be easily overlooked.

Don’t mistake these for excuses. My short-coming on the all-work-no-play front was due to inexperience.

More Work and Some Play

I knew the fun quota had to be raised. We had a team of amazing people at the company, and I felt guilty for not providing more opportunities to blow off some steam. We started with the basics: dinner, drinks and karaoke. Compared to late night dashes for the last train, this was a big step in the right direction. However, as time went on the purpose of these events strayed from the intended goal. Getting away from work was critical, but there had to be other ways to do it. I didn’t have the time to dedicate toward this, but I had ideas. I just needed someone who could take on the important, yet time-consuming role.

Rise of the Fun Czarina

A talented Human Resources person is worth their weight in gold, as catering to the diverse needs of the team is critical to overall happiness. However, most people at small businesses have to wear many hats. This was, and continues to be, the case for us. So, it was time to find the right person for the job. We put together a small challenge for the potential candidates, and the winner was hired as the Fun Czarina. (Czar is for males I was told.) You can follow her blog here.

More Meaningful Fun 

We calculated the amount spent on wining and dining, and allotted the Fun Czarina that same amount to plan monthly and bi-monthly events. The focus shifted from just spending time together to incorporating culture and learning experiences into the activities. The budget is spent much better now, and overall, I think that we’re giving our team new opportunities to experience life in Japan! Let’s be honest, it’s why most of us moved here in the first place! Japanese food is amazing, but there’s more to life here than just that.

For example, here is a comparison of events from 2011 vs. 2012

2011 - restaurant, restaurant, restaurant, restaurant

2012 - bowling/ping-pong-karoke, day trip to make soba and pick peaches, hot-spring trip

In addition, there are small monthly events that the Fun Czarina puts together in and outside of the office that focus on team members and Japanese culture.

Balancing Work and Play

I’m hardwired to work. If I put myself in charge of planning fun events for the staff, it would consume me. I know from experience. That’s when I realized it was better to have someone dedicated to planning for fun and let me focus on work. Instead of finding internal balance, it’s more like a see-saw: on one side work and on the other the other fun. Through this solution we have found a much better Work-Play balance.

And now I’m free to continue to pushing!

Be sure to tune into the Motoko’s Blog series to see what the Fun Czarina has in store for us!

Japanesepod101.com Tokyo Office Visit

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Hi everyone! Motoko here.

At the beginning of this month, two JapanesePod101.com listeners came to visit us at the office. Apparently we often used to have listeners come and visit us, but for me it was the first time, so I was really excited.

Christophe(SP?) was from Switzerland, and said that he tried to come to Japan at least once a year. It was really clear to me that he loves Japan! This time he visited our Tokyo office with his friend, who is also a JapanesePod101.com listener. This friend is currently employed at a Japanese company! Isn’t that impressive?

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We took a commemorative photo together with another member of staff, Jessi.

If you ever come to Japan, please definitely drop in to our Tokyo office for a visit!

Out From The Depths of the Innovative Language Learning Lab – Part One

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Peter here.

For many JapanesePod101.com learners, it’s been a long time.

For many others, please allow my to introduce myself.

My name is Peter Galante, founder of JapanesePod101.com: the engine that allowed Innovative Language Learning to grow from one website into a full-fledged language learning company.

For several years, I’ve been locked in the language-learning lab working on a colossal content project. We’ve made some serious strides since our inception, and several product prototypes have begun to reach market. Our creation will power innovative language learning products for many years to come.

We’re seriously excited about sharing these with you, because frankly, we owe you. Actually, we owe you everything. Your support has powered our growth from a podcast to a language learning company.

Thanks to all of the support from all of our incredible learners, we’re counting down to two major milestones:

  • 200 million lessons delivered
  • 27 language learning websites

So, I thought it was a good time to get my head out of my lab, and…

First, say “Thank You!”

Second, share our story of how we got here.

Rewind to the Start of the Revolution – December 2005

In the beginning, there was one person. Writing, recording, recruiting, improvising, persuading, coding… whatever it took to release a language lesson a day, I would do. Growth was exciting and motivating. The community grew. The team grew. Passion for our product and its reception fueled the expansion from one language to two, and we didn’t stop there.

Fast Forward to the Present Progress – May 2012

A team of 20 incredibly gifted full-timers, network of hundreds more around the world, and an alumni of extremely talented people have taken the company from a Japanese language company to a language learning company. From 1 site in 2005 to 23 (going on 27 in July) in 2012, plus several hundred iPhone and Android applications, e-books, and iBooks. In short, if there is a digital language learning market, we’re probably in it.

You can view the time line here.

The Journey is the Best Part

Along our journey, there have been some remarkable stories that were never shared. There were successes and failures that we never took the time to talk about. Not sharing the story of how we’ve bootstrapped our way to this point without outside funding or investment is one of the biggest regrets I have.

It’s a story of passionate and clever people who have been pushing themselves to the limit to provide high quality language learning material.

Share Our Journey  

Things are moving full-speed ahead. The goal of this series of blog posts is to introduce you to our team. Share our successes and failures as we strive to create a better product.

So, Part One: Say Thank You.

I would like to thank all the people who have supported us.

I would like to also thank all of the people that have helped build this.

We’ve met some incredible people in our journey, and we’re excited about the many others we’re destined to meet!

Our ‘Farewell, Pim! Welcome Back, Kim!’ Tea Party

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Today, we bring you a blog post from Motoko, JapanesePod101.com lesson creator, host and InnovativeLanguage.com Office Party Planner! Motoko will be sharing more posts on our blog, so check back often and leave a comment!

On the 17th of April here at Innovative Language Learning, we had an afternoon tea party.

Although Kim (a member of our Business Development Team) moved to Hong Kong, last week she came back to Japan for a brief visit, so it was her ‘welcome back’ party. Meanwhile, Pim (host of ThaiPod101.com) is going back to her home country to have her baby, so it was her ‘farewell’ party.

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We all ate pastries, chatted, and enjoyed ourselves.

There was a choice of pastries: strawberry, green tea, custard… It was really hard to choose!

By the way, everyone, do you know what a shikishi is?

It’s a plain piece of card that measures roughly 20cm by 20cm. Actually, because it’s quite thick – about 3mm – it might be better to call it a board. It usually has a piece of Japanese paper pasted to one side of it. In Japan, when there’s a celebratory occasion, or someone is leaving, everyone writes a message on this piece of card. At ILL, too, when someone has something to celebrate or a staff member is leaving the company, we present them with a shikishi.

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First of all, we write the name of the person in the middle. This time, it’s Pim. Then, so that the person we’re giving it to doesn’t see it while we’re writing on it, we put it inside the Secret File.

Everyone in the office then takes it in turns to write a message along the lines of ‘Congratulations!’ or ‘See you!’ before passing the card to the next person. Of course the company president also writes a personal message.

When everyone’s finished writing their messages, we decorate the card and make it cute and colorful.

Finally, we give it to Pim! She seemed really pleased with it. We’re going to miss you Pim!

Bonus : The True Face of ILL

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