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初めて日本に行った時、友達のお母さんが伝統的な和式朝食を作ってくれました。

The first time I went to Japan, my friend's mother made me a traditional Japanese breakfast.

If I wrote the opening of the sentence in the following manner, how would the meaning change?

最初に日本に行った時、

or

最初日本に行った時、

In this context, what is the difference between 初めて, 最初に and 最初?

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What do you think 最 means? –  Chris Harris Aug 21 '12 at 16:54
    
most, as in 最 (most) + 初 (first time) = 最初 beginning;  outset;  first;  onset. –  yadokari Aug 21 '12 at 17:43
    
@Chris: What is the purpose of your question? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '12 at 19:20
    
@TsuyoshiIto I think 最初 implies that there exists something after the first event. –  Chris Harris Aug 21 '12 at 20:03
    
@Chris do you think 初めて implies that something does not exist after the first event? –  yadokari Aug 21 '12 at 20:18

2 Answers 2

Here is my reasoning.

最初 refers to the beginning of a time period or to the beginning of a series of events. (Cf. 日本に来たばかりのとき...)

As istrasci pointed out in his answer, the additional に strengthens the time reference. (Cf. 日曜日街に行く vs. 日曜日に街に行く.)

初めて is used, as far as I can tell exclusively, for things you do for the first time. (Cf. 初めて見た.)

The difference between

初めて日本に行ったとき、
最初日本に行ったとき、

is maybe best reflected in English as

When I went to Japan for the first time, [the first thing I did was to find a convenience store and eat natto and I loved it.]
When I first went to Japan, [I could hardly understand a word of what people said.]

In the first sentence, you talk about what Japan was like for you, as a first impression. In the second sentence, you simply talk about the time period, which coincides with your arrival in Japan.

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+1 This was the only reason I could come up with as well. –  Chris Harris Aug 23 '12 at 4:20

最初に sounds wrong in your example. 最初日本に行った時 I believe is correct. The additional is only needed if the "first" is like in a list of steps, or describing who/what is the first to do something.

  • 最初彼に会ったときにはあまり強い印象を受けなかった。 → The first time I met him, he did not make much of an impression on me.
  • まず最初 ゆでて,次に味付けする。 → First boil it and then season it.
  • 最初 到着したのはトムだった。 → Tom was the first to arrive ("The first to arrive was Tom").

Other than that point, assuming your second sentence is then just 最初日本に行った時, then they basically mean the same thing. The only thing I would say is that 最初 kind of implies many times, whereas 初めて doesn't necessarily imply any number of repetitions. At least that's the feeling I get from them, but that could just be me.

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1  
I originally wrote 最初日本に行った時, then was corrected by a native speaker to 初めて日本に行った時. In her explanation she had changed it to 最初に日本に行った時.here is what she said: 「最初に日本に行った」は、旅のスタート地点が日本だったと言っているようにも受け取れますし、何回か日本を訪れたうちの1回目を指しているようにも受け取れます。「初め‌​て日本に行った」のほうがvery first time to go to Japanと、その時の事を指していることがはっきりと分かります。 –  yadokari Aug 21 '12 at 17:39
    
I do not think I recognize any difference between 最初 and 最初に in this case…. 初めて is more natural than both of them in this case. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '12 at 19:24
    
@yadokari: I agree with the native speaker that 初めて日本に行った時 sounds more natural than 最初に日本に行った時. I also agree that 最初(に)日本に行った時 can mean a different thing as she explained, but I am not sure if that is the reason it sounds less natural to me. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '12 at 19:25

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