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Getting stopped by the police on my bicycle

To many of your knowledge or surprises, having your earphones in while riding a bicycle is, in fact, illegal in Japan. The police may stop you and give you a fine if they see you doing it.I learned about that law on my way home from work one day, listening to my favourite music, and the police standing at the street corner signaled me to stop my bike."Sir, you can't have your headphones in while riding a bicycle."Even after I've explained my ignorance, I was given a warning ticket and promised that I'd change.From that day on, I started riding my bike with only ONE earphone in.Fast forward a year, I was stopped again. Apparently, ONE earphone is also not okay, and there I got another warning ticket from a different police officer. Lucky for me, I was let off with just a warning, but they had all the rights to fine me for the "dangerous behaviour", so you bicycle riders out there, watch out!

7 Crazy Japanese Superstitions (that might offend)

I'm sure we've all been guilty of some cultural faux pas or other. Whether it's not saying 'God bless you' after someone sneezing, opening an umbrella indoors, or unknowingly using bad table manners, we've all done something to make others uncomfortable. And in Japan, there are many cultural faux pas that you have to be careful of. Now, while some of them come from standard etiquette (like eating on the train is a no-no), there are those that are based in superstition. So, after learning about some of these the hard way, I've decided to make a list of superstitions that you should be careful of when coming to Japan. Of course, there are plenty of other strange beliefs (such as covering up your bellybutton during a storm), but the ones below generally cover superstitions that you have to remember not to break.Once in a while little diddys get stuck in your head. And you can't help but whistle them. But at night in Japan? Don't do it. I learnt this one the hard way... and after being almost tackled by my Japanese friend, she explained why: Just like in the Nigerian culture, whistling at night in Japan is believed to attract snakes. Snakes that will come to bite and attack you. However, this is not the only fear that the Japanese have about whistling at night. In certain areas, some people believe that whistling will also attract robbers or kidnapping tengu (demons).As an English teacher, this superstition almost caught me out. Of course red ink in general is not illegal or scary, but it is specifically writing names in this particular hue that can get you into trouble. This is because of the belief that writing a person's name in red ink will cut their lives short. But where does this superstition stem from? Well, like many death omens, it stems from the graveyard... OooooOooooh! You see, when gravestones are made in Japan, both spouses' names are written - even if one of them is still alive. Therefore, to distinguish the difference between the living and the dead, the living person's name is often filled in with red paint - to be washed away at the time of their death. Hence, the superstition.Now this one is not too commonly known in Japan anymore, but is still a regular superstition among the older generation and those working in hospitals. You see, potted plants are terrible gifts to give - especially to those who have been hospitalized. This is because you seem to be sending a subtle message: "I hope you will stay rooted in the hospital forever! (Just like this gift)". It's also a good idea to avoid giving white flowers (lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias) as gifts to anyone as they are usually associated with funerals.In many cultures there are certain unlucky numbers. For example, in Christian cultures, the number 13 is so feared that even movies are made about it's sheer terror (see Friday the 13th). But in Japan, the number 13 is not the one to be afraid of. These curses belong rather to two different numbers: the number 4 and the number 9. But why? Well, the answer is far more simple and logical than the 13 apostles of Christ. You see, in Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced 'shi' (四/し) - exactly the same as the word for death (死/し). While the number 9 in Japanese is pronounced 'ku' (九/く), which is exactly the same as the word for pain or suffering (苦/く). Therefore, people tend to steer clear of these numbers - whether it's giving a number of gifts or numbering hotel rooms.Although I will be doing a post on table manners specifically, I thought that this superstition was worth mentioning as it's so important. At Japanese funerals, chopsticks are stuck upright in a bowl of rice that sits on the alter (hotokebashi/仏箸). As a result, this image of chopsticks has become associated with funerals and death. So it's clear to see why sticking chopsticks into rice at the dinner table is thoroughly frowned upon.Just like the previous entry, black ties are usually reserved for funerals. And while this mistake might be less frowned upon than the one above, wearing a black tie with a white shirt is still considered to be very unlucky. So if you're visiting Japan on business, or working here, then you should steer clear of matching your black tie with a white shirt. Maybe try living a little and wear something less death-related.It is common in Western weddings to give gifts to the bride and groom, and giving only money can sometimes be frowned upon. However, in Japan, it is customary to give the happy couple some cold hard cash. But be careful! There are some superstitions around this one too... You see, usually, couples are given either 30 000 yen or 50 000 yen (about R3 000 and R5 000 respectively). So why not 20, or 40 thousand yen? Well that's because those two figures can easily be divided by two - thus bringing about images of separation and divorce. But for cash-strapped individuals, you can still give the lucky couple 20 000 yen if you so desire. Just make sure that you give a 10 000 yen note and two 5 000 yen notes - once again, to make sure that it cannot easily be divided.

Cool Japan : Transportation

    The ease of transportation in this country is astounding. Always on time. You can get to just about any place you desire. You can also ride just about any form of transportation you can think of. It really is amazing.               When I was growing up, the first time I ever rode a train was at Dollywood when I was three years old. There are pictures of me on a little trolley train from our family vacation. I can actually remember sitting in my dad’s arms, so ecstatic to be on a train. However, my first time riding a real train for the purpose of traveling, transporting me to a new place and not just back to an entrance gate, was in university. I rode that train for four days, arriving two days after I had been scheduled to arrive. Two extra days is a long time to be on a train. I was much less ecstatic to be on the train after that. However my interest peaked again a year later when I arrived fresh off a plane in the land of the rising sun. I would spend the next year of my study abroad traveling around, using the train daily to get to class, and also taking various forms of transportation I only dreamed about as a little kid.    Japan’s amazing precision when it comes to trains arriving and departing on time boggled my American mind. After that lonely train ride I had taken the previous year, I couldn’t understand why the Amtrak train system could be so flippin awful if the Japanese train network could run so smoothly even though there are far more transfers, connections and just general muck about through city areas and traffic. Sure there is the occasional accident or delay from weather, but there are alerts everywhere letting you know that a train will arrive late. Just on the platform alone, there are flashing red notices that scroll across the marques announcing how late the trains are running. The station masters go on the intercoms and continuously notify everyone what is happening. Then when you do reach your destination, the station masters are kind enough to hand everyone a tardy slip for their work or school. You know, just to let your boss or teacher know you weren’t fibbing about the train and didn’t just over sleep due to a hangover. Even without the slip of paper though, it would be super easy to fact check because the train lines keep everyone updated online as well.              Not only are trains reliable in Japan, but you’ve also got some of the coolest trains in the world here. There is of course the Shinkansen aka bullet train, which can take you up to speeds of 200 kilometers per hour. But then there are the romance trains as well. In Kiryu, Gunma, there is a train on the Watarase train line that during the fall season, when all the leaves on the trees are changing colors and the air is crisp and beautiful, has open air cars. The 1800en all day ticket seems a pretty steep price for such a short trip, but the views are amazing and you are allowed to get on and off as much as you like that day, visiting the onsen (hot spring) or perhaps the mine at the end of the line. It really is worth the ticket price. There are also bento (boxed lunches) during this time of year as well. Then you’ve got the steam engines. I don’t know about other places but growing up for me, that picturesque image of a train with steam billowing out of the top was just a dream from the past. The first time I stumbled across one randomly as it stopped at the platform I was transferring on, i was completely elated like a little kid. And there are multiple steam engines across Japan, all offering different experiences. People, especially train enthusiasts and hobby photographers, crowd alone train lines, on platforms and stumble after each other getting off at each stop just to take photos of the train they are riding.     But maybe you aren’t much of a train enthusiast. Don’t worry because there are also boats, ferries, trolleys, gondola lifts ectera ectera . If your heart so desired you can even ride on one of those swan paddle boats. All you’ve gotta do is find a touristy lake, like the one at Nikko. If you want gondola lifts and cable cars then take a trip to Hakone. Both of these places have amazing public transit and day passes so you can ride pretty much whatever you want all day. I’ve become more enthusiastic about all the different kinds of transportation since having a child who can’t get enough of it. But to be honest, Ive kinda fallen in love with it since coming to this country. Just come and act like a kid a bit. Travel around.  You will fall in love with it too.If you are lucky, you may even get to ride a cat bus.

The little secret of supermarket carts

For years in Japan, I never knew this little trick until I saw someone do it...Did you know that the small supermarket shopping carts are designed so that the height can fit right above the table where you pack your groceries?BOOM! Just like that, and the little space-saver cart is now right beside you at the table. You don't need to twist your body around to reach for the pack of pork and the head of lettuce just to twist yourself back again to stuff them into your bag!More importantly, the cart is no longer sitting behind me and tripping everyone who is walking out from the supermarket. It's both space-efficient and good manners. If you didn't know that, give it a try next time!~

Are you above average at Japanese?

For all of you worried about your Japanese language skills, don't worry too much. Apparently even native Japanese aren't all that great at Japanese tests. My daughters who are in 2nd and 3rd grade came back yesterday with their national test scores. It gives a lovely bar graph, so they can see where they line up on the national average. Ignoring the fact that my 3rd grader received a 14 percent on her "kokugo" (Japanese) portion of the test, even other Japanese kids don't seem to be doing too hot. The national average is 57%! That's just barely above half of the questions correct. This wouldn't be considered a passing grade in the states.So if you are still struggling with the JLPT, know that the struggle is real! Even for kids growing up with the language.

Hanami with kids at a farm in rural Saitama

My criteria for "hanami" or cherry blossom viewing is very different since I had kids, especially with four of them all born within five years of each other. In order for it to be a pleasant day for all involved we always chose locations that have something to offer everyone in the family. Enomoto Farm is one such place. Located in rural Ageo, the farm is worth a visit in itself, if not for the farm experience, for the delicious and acclaimed ice-cream. During springtime the cherry blossoms are an added bonus. Another attraction of the farm is that it doesn't have to cost a yennie. If you are on a budget and can avoid buying the ice-cream you don't have to put your hand in your pocket to play here. The main courtyard, at the front of the famous ice-cream shop, is home to dozens of push along rides. All free to use. There are some animals in the courtyard that you can view and you can go into one cow shed too, all for free. There are a few benches and a couple of picnic tables you can sit at while your kids play. There is also an expansive green area where you can picnic at the back of the farm. Near the green area there is a barbecue area (which does cost money) with some free play equipment kids can use. I love this little playground as it reminds me of make-shift playgrounds in Ireland, when I was growing up. They have tractor tyres as swings, a flying fox made out of wire and an old tractor the kids can muck around on. If you or your family cycle, this farm is very welcoming to and very popular with cyclists. They have some cycle stands set up that you can use freely. However, to make the most of your visit there are a few things you can do that do cost money, but in my opinion they are all very reasonably priced. For one; you can sample some of their delicious ice-cream, or gelato as they call it. Prices start at ¥262 for a cone or cup of fresh ice-cream. They have a good selection of flavours. Recently they have started selling 100% yoghurt too. I have yet to taste it, but it gets very good reports. You can also buy their produce online and have it shipped direct to your home. Another thing you can enjoy at this farm, for a reasonable sum, is milking the cows. They have a course you can do that involves milking the cows, then trying your hand at making fresh butter. You need to book in advance for any of their classes. You can book up until two days before you wish to visit the farm. The classes start from 10.30 am and usually take about 90 minutes to two hours. During cherry blossom season I particularly enjoy making use of their barbecue area, which only costs 220 yen per person to use. You can also order a barbecue set which comes everything you need to light up the barbie. (It does not include food). The barbecue area needs to be booked in advance. Sunday is the most popular day for a BBQ at Enomoto Farm and they advise you book around two months in advance for a Sunday. A lot of the cherry blossoms are out the back of the farm, but there are some really beautiful cherry blossoms in the courtyard. The farm looks so much more beautiful in spring. The farm is beside an old country road that runs along the river where wild rapeseed flowers grow. If you time it right you can enjoy the breathtaking scene of the courtyard cherry blossoms back dropped by brilliant yellow rapeseed flowers. The farm is quite difficult to find, but if you have an up-to-date satellite navigation system or use Google Maps you should be able to find it. Immediately around the farm there is nothing but nature, bar a graveyard on one side. However, a short drive away is one of Kanto's best parks for families, Maruyama Park. Maruyama park is also a great spot for cherry blossom viewing with (or without) young children. You can combine the two on a day trip out of Tokyo for a very pleasant rural hanami experience. BBQ Reservations: 048(726)1306 URL: http://www.enoboku.com/

5 Annoying Things About Japan

Overall, Japan is a fantastic place to live and work, but as you pass through the honeymoon phase of culture shock, some small things begin to niggle away at you. Yes, that's right, this is the 'Frustration Phase' of Culture Shock.So as a response to this, I decided to make a video about some of the annoying things about Japan for a foreigner.

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