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10 Things I’ll Never Get About Japan (And probably don’t want to?)

Not much to explain here, other than that this list won’t be accompanied by the 10 Things I Love about Japan.  I wouldn’t be able to narrow it down to 10, so it’s easier to do it this way - things that, after years of being in the country, I still don’t get about Japan.Variety TVStudio sets that could induce epilepsy.  The same ‘hosts’ appearing everyday.. I mean every f#$king day.  A lot of shouting.  Leering cameras looking for up-skirt shots of some heavy chested ‘idol’ brought on to give their opinion about the latest situation in Syria.  Panels of, errm, experts doing their best to cry at scenes where an American claims to be able to speak to depressed dogs … I’ll say it, Japanese variety TV is almost psychotically annoying.  For me.If it lives in the sea, let’s eat it!I like a bit of seafood, but Japan doesn’t know when to stop.  Whales, dolphins, snail type things that look like poo when you pull them out of the shell, … stuff that wriggles when you pour soy sauce on it. A warning to all sea creatures, get the hell out of Japanese waters!The chop sticks complimentI think you could have been twenty years ‘in country’ and use chopsticks with all the dexterity of Bambi taking her first steps, and people over here will still say, ‘My, how you handle those chop sticks’.  I mean, it’s patronising isn’t it?!August as ‘beach’ seasonAside from the fishing industry and a few sporty types, Japan turns its back on the ocean for 11 months of the year.  And then Augusts arrives, and with it, well, most of the country it seems.  That’s fine, what I don’t get is the mentality.  September 1st could be a Sunday in the high thirties, but because it’s not August, nobody goes to the beach.  Oh, and everyone leaves all their crap everywhere.Old menThe air in Japan is thick with rules, signs, warnings, polite requests, appeals to good manners … none of which seems to apply to old Japanese men.  Well, not all of them, but enough to warrant a mention.BosozokuBrooding mavericks that stick two fingers up to oppressive authority, or insecure wrecks with mummy and daddy issues who vent their inability to climb the social ladder by doing their best to noise pollute your Sunday afternoon?SandwichesStrawberries and whipped cream, fried noodles, breaded pork .. nuff said.Nobody sits next to me on the trainWell they do (I don’t smell that much, and my music isn’t that loud), it’s just that, often enough to suggest a pattern, locals will take up the sit-next-to-me option as a last resort.  What’s gonna happen when the Olympics rolls into town?!Expensive fruitIt’s come to something when a nation is willing to accommodate an industry that passes fruit off like it were a designer handbag.  I mean, 15,000 yen for a bunch of grapes?!  Looks like it’ll have to be bananas again.  Just like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that ….AKB48 and the likeI can’t find a single redeeming feature about this all singing, all dancing girl group, and the circus that surrounds them.  You just know the whole thing is a cash cow for sweaty palmed, dirty old men.  And then there was this story about one of the members ritualistically shaving her head because she spent the night with a boyfriend!  One can only assume the powers that be were pissed at her for not spending the night with them. Rant over - the things that I still don’t get about Japan.  Wow!  I feel better now!Of course, there are much heavier things in Japan, and the rest of the world, to be getting upset about, but I wanted to keep this here 'list', light and irreverent.I’d love to hear some of your rants about Japan, too.  Or is it just me?PhotosExpensive fruit - LWYang Flickr License (Image cropped)Beach - Dom Pates Flickr License (Image cropped)

New Years Shrine Visits

Japan’s stance on religion has always fascinated me.  On one hand, most of my friends say they do not know anything about religion.  I have tried to explain the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but we all end up confused (myself included as I normally trying the explanation in Japanese).  On the other hand, everyone I known has been to a shrine, not just as a tourist, but to throw coins into the box and make a few wishes. Most people I know have at least one omamori, or good luck charm, they bought at a temple or shrine. I have tried many times to explain this version of religion to my friends and family, but there is normally only one explanation that somewhat gets across:  Japanese people do not go to shrines as a part of a religious culture, but as a part of Japanese culture.  Those are not Shinto shrines they are flocking to, but Japanese shrines.  Of course, there are plenty of people who are genuinely religious, as we would define it in the West, but overall the practice seems to be one of Japanese-ness, rather than Shino or Buddhist.  This is something I love about Japanese culture, as well as the persistence of traditional events and rituals in modern day life.  Last year I had the privilege of going to one of the biggest shrines in my city on January 3rd.  Japanese culture dictates that you should go to three different shrines on the first three days of the New Year.  When I asked my friends why this was, I was told that it’s, “To get better odds.”  If you spread your prayers and wishes around to three different points, there is more of a chance of it coming true than if you go to the shrine every day.  (Besides, one shrine might offer you a better fortune than the other.) When I arrived at the shrine, the festive atmosphere in the area amazed me.  I didn’t think it would be a somber experience, but I also didn’t expect there to be takoyaki and karaage stands set up out front as if we were at a summer festival.  The entire street leading up to the shrine had been blocked off.  Once inside the shrine, however, things were more as I expected.  Though the shrine was definitely busier than I had ever seen it, everything was moving around in an orderly, typical Japanese fashion.  Apparently most people come after having a large family lunch, so by coming in the morning we were beating the crowds.While people waited in line to get their fortunes or throw their coins into the offering box, a dragon (well, two men dressed as one) was wandering around biting people on the head.  Apparently, a bite from the dragon endows you with great intellect; so many people were offering their children up as sacrifices.  Understandably, most kids were not thrilled with the prospect of being eaten, and made their displeasure loudly known. After we made our offering, we grabbed some paper fortunes, or omikuji.  I don’t remember what mine said, but I was informed that it was a good one.  Still, we all tied our fortunes to the nearby tree and stopped by the omamori window.  We all handed over our omamoris from the last year (I had been unaware that they came with an expiration date, but apparently they are only good for a year) and picked up a few new ones.              The omamori I picked up for health ended up being defective.  This year I have picked up a few from different temples, just to improve the odds.  After all, one can always use a little extra luck. 

Japan and the Christian mind

It intrigues me that less than 1% of Japan's population identify as Christian. According to Wikipedia, this still equates to over 1 million people if you lump Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox together. A respectable number even if a tiny, tiny proportion of the nation. When I began studying Bahasa Indonesian some six months ago, I learned that around 10% of the population identify as Christian, but this number is closer to 23 million people. I began studying further, utilising search engines, blogs, ebooks and even talking to Actual People and the prevailing thought seems to be that Christianity is disruptive; it spoils the harmony of the community and provokes a selfish, individualist attitude.What kind of “Christians” have these people been talking to? The question stopped me in my tracks. In my own experience, Christianity seems quite in tune with the culture – it is focused on community, assisting those around us who cannot assist themselves and reaching out to those around us, lifting one another up and teaching one another. The question really should be “How have we Christians been conducting ourselves?” I started thinking about my own experiences with so called Christians before I found my faith again and I began to understand the negative viewpoint. I encountered a great of hypocrisy, bigotry disguised as doctrine and wild eyed, mindless fanaticism. People confronting me in the street, grabbing my arm and shouting how I was doomed if I didn't accept Christ as my Saviour, buskers committing crimes against music to the point that even the church they were performing in front of ordered them to move on. And then you have the prosperity focused churches who are all about the money. Certainly one can understand how these false teachers are seen as disruptive and objectionable. As I began to write this entry on New Years Day, I received multiple interruptions that disrupted my train of thought – these proved to be beneficial however, as they gave me time to further my research and realise that my original idea was incomplete. Whilst I had briefly glanced at the history of Christianity in Japan, I discovered that there was a great deal more than I first thought and my original understanding was flawed. I came to discover that part of the problem was they way we approached the subject – Christianity explained from a Western perspective can be construed as sometimes meaningless, sometimes objectionable and offensive. Expressions and similes that we use in English (or even the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic texts) don't translate well into either the Japanese language or the culture. In addition to translating the language, we must also seek out a cultural equivalent to explain. So as I renew my studies of Japanese, reviewing my textbooks and notes from my night classes dating back from 1997, I realise that I need to approach my learning from the other direction – I need to study not just more about the culture but also the religion of Japan to find parallels, to find the parallels that make the gospel more comprehensible but more accessible. We will never inspire people to look further into the gospel if we start off offending them.

New Years in Snow Country Niigata

Niigata Prefecture, crisp clean air and tons of snow regardless of what time of year it is. From Tokyo, it took me two hours by bullet train, and when I left there wasn’t a hint of snow. It seems as soon as I left the tunnel, I entered into a world of bitter cold and endless mountain. Because I had to work the night before, myself and my girlfriend had to leave New Year’s Eve. For the bullet train, it cost us only 3000 yen both ways for just one of us, 6000 yen all together. That’s fine and dandy, but the cost of this savings, is standing for nearly an hour and a half on one of the busiest travel days of the year, until you can scam yourself a seat when somebody leaves the car. On this day, I definitely recommend taking the shinkansen reserved car. Any other normal day or weekend, totally go for the unreserved seats. What was the purpose of this trip? Why go to Niigata? Well, my girlfriend’s family is in Niigata. So this is the introducing the foreign boyfriend chapter of your Japanese language textbooks you would hopefully someday experience. I’ve read the books, studied for nearly 3 years (unfortunately working in an all English speaking job), and heard all the audio tapes about the introduction to the parents scenario.  But that was fine. If I used enough naru-hodo’s, iindesu’s, and sou desune’s, I’d get through it. I dumbed down my language to encourage them to dumb down their own language. It seemed fine for a bit, especially because most of the time my face was filled with food. The weather: Niigata is covered in snow most of the year. We got a message from okasan about bringing good boots, so I brought my very expensive and comfortable hiking boots. Not, good, enough. First thing mom aggressively bought me without my option of paying, was 9 inch rubber boots.   New Years Eve: Food, tons of food. Sushi, sashimi, little finger sandwhiches, roast beef, fish sausages, nabe soup, fresh picked mountain vegetables, freshly pickled mountain vegetables, and plenty of beer and sake. Mom and dad were there, her brother and his family, and two kids that were immediately attracted to me. I entertained the children by reading and translating Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish Two Fish” like a boss. And thank goodness that everybody under the age of 45 spoke Tokyo-ben. I could atleast understand 50 percent. All that effort paid off a little bit. Even 95 year old grandpa came out to have fun with us.We shared a lot in common. I’m in the US Navy, he was a WWII veteran of the Japanese Army. We both drank a lot. And we both didn’t really know exactly was going on around us. Midnight: Before they left, I gave brother a hickory farms summer sausage holiday set, and I got some kind of fish cracker snack. The rest of us went into a food coma and woke up shortly before midnight. Snow…. So much snow. It was a bit epic. Hatsumode is a tradition in Japan that on new years at the temple, you pray for two years ahead, and burn your old amulets and buy fresh ones. After visiting one temple to pray, we visited another after hours. Like in Batman Begins, the snow was falling very hard, and we climbed very steep steps to get to a mountain side temple overlooking the mountain pass. Everybody was already gone, except an old man beating the flames down of the burning amulets. We heard laughter at the temple, and we were pointed in that direction. My girlfriend’s father was there with the rest of the elderly community, and at the entrance, they welcomed us with “Akemashite Gozaimasu”. Then a monk with a straggly beard offered me sake in a bowl.  Thanks, don’t forget to check me out at www.youtube.com/janglishjerryshow Sorry I didn’t have any video this time, I think I was too lethargic from the food and drink, and also didn’t want to invade anybody’s privacy, but I still wanted to share.Enjoy!

You are paying too much for your phone bill!

I first arrived in Japan 6 years ago, the first thing I did was to get my prepaid phone, I recharge my prepaid phone card every 3 months. Back then I was using a feature phone, so it is about 1000 yen per month for text message and phone call.Nowadays with all those smartphones and data plans, those cell phone carriers can easily slap you with a ten thousand yen phone bill in the face each month. At first, I thought there are nothing you can do except take it with a bitter smile, but I was wrong you can actually save at least 50% if you look for it.Follow the follow rules to cut down on your phone bill:1. Do not go to the official cell phone carriers' store, they will sell you those overpriced data plans.2. Remember to change your carrier when the current contract end, your new carrier will give you a new phone for free plus special discount and cash back. 3. For some extra saving, search "一括" and "MNP" on twitter to get those store limited campaigns.4. March is the best month for changing phone carriers because it is the end of the fiscal year for most of the cell phone shops, they will push out all the campaigns to match the sales quota they needed.5. Having multiple phone line is cheaper than having one phone line because you can share your data plan at the same time use the family discount.Here is the English translation for one of the deals I found:40000 yen for 2 iPhone 6s 64Gb if you trade in your old iPhone 5 or 5s and use MNP discount (change from another carrier).I will skip the detail and give you an overview about this deal, 1-year total cost is about 10 thousand yen and 2-years cost is about 22 thousand yen. Without this discount, cell phone carrier will charge you 24 thousand yen for each 2-years contract with one phone, with this discount you get two phones and 10GB data usage per month.Family Plan with 2 iPhone 6s1 Phone    Basic unlimited phone call 2,916円    Landline Broadband discount + change carrier discount -2,916円    broadband fee 324円    Family share data pack 10,260円    Broadband set discount -1,296円    Phone monthly discount -3,456円    Second phone monthly discount -2,592円    Total included tax 3,240円2 Phone    Basic unlimited phone call 2,916円    Landline Broadband discount + change carrier discount -2,916円    broadband fee 324円    Family share data pack add-on 540円    Phone monthly discount -3,456円Total monthly charge is 3240 Yen

(Trying to) Travel in Japan During New Years

If you work in Japan, there are precious few long holidays that won’t cost you your limited vacation days.  For teachers, there are only two you can really count on: Golden Week and New Years (and every few years there’s a Silver Week in there too, but it’s irregular and tends to throw everything out of wack).  However, it is important to remember that, compared to many Western countries, New Years in Japan is much quieter and more family-oriented affair.  This means that unlike Golden Week, many businesses and tourist destinations shut down during this time. This was a vital fact I had, for one, had forgotten before planning my trip to Hiroshima.  However, if living in Japan teaches you anything, it is how to adjust on the fly. Hiroshima is actually a (day) trip that I would really recommend to go on during the New Years’ holiday.  Almost everything may be shut down, but a lot of Hiroshima’s beauty and tourist draws are located outside anyway.  This means that you can spend hours wandering around the Peace Park or Miyajima without worrying about the same kind of crowd you might get on any other day.  The fact that everything is closed also means that you can stick to your own schedule.  If you are awake and ready to go at 7:30 in the morning, then you can go.  No need to wait for that museum or castle to open.For me (after getting over the realization that everything was closed), this meant that I got to enjoy the castle grounds in peace and silence.  I was then able to wander around the Peace Park, ducking a few tour groups, and take the whole thing at my own pace.  There was no schedule, there was no stress, and I have never felt freer on a trip before. Miyajima was already a bit crowded when I arrived, but it was still easy to move around the crowd and getting into the main temple was a breeze.  I was able to waste a few hours there, just wandering around. The bottom line is if you want to travel for the winter holiday, I recommend doing what most people do: leave the country.  If you cannot do that, then pick a location whose main attractions are not behind some gate that can be closed.  

A Room With A View, Yokohama

Let’s be clear, I love Yokohama.  Probably, I love it because I don’t live there.  I love it because the grass is always greener on the other side.  I love the sense of maritime atmosphere around Minato Mirai 21.  I love the attitude of Yokohama residents who seem to stick two fingers up (or just one) to overbearing neighbour, Tokyo.  I love the international vibe and the remnants of a swashbuckling, merchant squabbling past.  I love that the seafront promenade along Yamashita Park is the closest I’ll ever get in Japan to the old school, seagulls, fish n chips pleasure of working-class holiday towns back home.  I love Yokohama because it embraces its seafront situation where the rest of coastal Japan turns its back.Yokohama is also a city that lends itself to sweeping views, and on a very recent overnight stay, I bagged myself surely one of the best.  From my hotel room.  For a not too exorbitant price.Welcome to the hotel, Navios Yokohama.  Not a headline grabber in Yokohama’s hotel scene, and that’s something to be thankful for (I assume it keeps the prices down).  Navios has bagged itself a full frontal view of Yokohama’s Minato Mirai 21 spread, literally.  Landmark Tower, Queen’s Square, Cosmo Clock 21 (a big ferris wheel), and the InterContinental Grand Hotel all lay prostrate to your bug-eyed gaze from your room with a view.Which room, exactly?  Well, we got one on the 10th floor (the highest), but on this side of the building, all floors (and all rooms) can, I think, enjoy the same scene.  On the other side of the building, views are of Rainbow Bridge, Akarenga Terrace, and the various comings and goings of Yokohama’s maritime scene. Personally, the Minato Mirai view is better.  Whatever your room number though, as far as I can tell, you’re guaranteed a spectacle.Given the stellar views, all other aspects of Navios Yokohama are redundant, but for what it’s worth, the service was fine, the lobby clean, the room (a non-smoking double) what you’d expect for the price, the restaurants I don’t know (we didn’t eat in the hotel), and the location, spot on.More on the latter; nearest station - Bashamichi Subway (Minatomirai Line, 3 min walk).  World Porters shopping mall, a stone’s throw away.  Cup Noodle Museum, a stronger arm’s stone throw away. Romantic seafront walk adjacent to Yamashita Park, very accessible (we walked from Motomachi Station to the hotel in about 15-20 mins). Akarenga Terrace, just across the street.  Landmark Tower and other Minato Mirai 21 attractions, all within about 5 mins walk.  A room with a view (i.e. all of them) at the hotel Navios Yokohama cost us around 23,000 yen (inc. tax). This was booked last minute through Agoda.  New Year’s probably made prices higher.  However, no meals were included.  We ate dinner out in World Porters (it was New Year’s Day so restaurant choice was limited) and breakfast was a few bits from a nearby Family Mart.If you’re baulking at the price, fair enough, but I think you’ll be hard pushed to find rooms with a view like this for much cheaper, in Yokohama or Tokyo.  I could be wrong though, so would welcome similar suggestions from other users here.HostingReviews

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