Amy Chavez

Amy Chavez lives on a Shiraishijima, a small island in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, with 563 other crazy people. She also writes for the Japan Times, blogs for HuffPo, and has authored two books: Japan, Funny Side Up and Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment. She loves running really long distances, skiing super steep mountains and sailing the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea. Her motto in life is: "Surround yourself with beauty and peace."

All Stories by Amy Chavez

8 things you should never say to a Japanese person

We asked Japanese people to tell us the things foreigners say or think about Japan that really gets their goat—and they were happy to oblige! How many of these faux pas are you guilty of?

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Big, drunk and furry—Everything you need to know about tanuki (plus a song about their balls!)

See this tanuki? Aren’t his balls cute? Welcome to Japan, where raccoon-dog genitals are universally admired.

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Japan Misunderstood: 3 stereotypes that live on

Every time I visit my home country and talk about my life in Japan, one thing becomes clear to me: Japan remains incredibly misunderstood overseas. With this in mind, today we’ll be discussing three stereotypes of Japan: the country’s apparent disdain for those who stand out from the crowd, the notion that Japan is a strict society, and that the idea of ‘losing face’ is a quintessentially Asian concept.

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10 factors that make Japan a safe country

We’ve all heard about how safe Japan is. But unless you live here, you may not understand why Japan is considered so safe. The uninitiated may presume that safety is enforced through a rigid society that doesn’t allow freedom of expression, that Japanese people are too worried about losing face to commit a crime, or that the government comes down unnecessarily hard on people who step out of line. In reality, none of these rings true.

But we can’t deny that there’s one thing that Japan does better than anyone else. Join us after the jump for some insights and our own observations.

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Living in Japan: 10 “normal” things you won’t find here

Living abroad is fun and exciting; hardly a day goes by when something doesn’t surprise, humor, or baffle you. Living in another country also gives you a chance to understand your own native nation and evaluate the good and the bad from an outsider’s perspective.

So today we want to share with you some things that we miss from our own countries—that is to say mainly the US and UK—that we never realized we’d miss! Because, you know, they just seemed so normal, we thought Japan would have them too.

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The cutest, must-have bento lunchboxes you can buy and eat on the train

Japanese often say that a good view makes a meal taste better, so it goes without saying that a cute-looking lunchbox would also enhance the contents inside. From meals served in Shinkansen-shaped containers or rabbit-faced boxes that can be reused as coin banks, to lunch boxes that play music or have collector’s items hidden inside, Japan’s ekiben take Japanese food to a whole new level.

Today we’d like to tell you about “Ekiben”, a little book by Aki Tomura which introduces the best and most unique train station lunch boxes in Japan. We’ve chosen just a few to highlight from this gorgeously photographed, pocket-size book. The word Ekiben is a combination of two Japanese words: eki (station) and bento (lunchbox), so make your next train trip a gourmet ride with these bento available at various JR stations—just waiting for you to buy, smile, and devour.

Let the fun begin!

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Japan’s most spectacular views (and the lists behind them)

Have you ever wondered what the most spectacular views in Japan are? Allow us to enlighten you!

Recently, we told you about Japan’s top three night views according to the Night View Summit 2015. You may have also heard about Japan’s Three Scenic Spots, one of the many lists of the top three this or that in Japan. So, what’s the deal with all these lists? And who designates them? Find out while checking out some of the best scenery Japan has to offer.

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Gift-giving made easy! The most popular omiyage bought in Japan, station by station

Believe it or not, train stations are one of the best places to buy gifts in Japan. Train station omiyage (gifts brought back from your travels) are usually edible, representative of the local culture, and are well-received by everyone from colleagues at work to friends or neighbors.

Whereas in the west we tend to keep a person’s personality and their likes in mind when buying a gift, thankfully in Japan, it’s much easier—just buy what’s most popular! In convenient Japan, you’ll find most of the decisions already made for you, so all you have to do is decide how many pre-giftwrapped boxes you want of each item, and you’ll soon be on your way. You can even wait until you’re on the train to buy them from the vendor pushing their cart up and down the aisles on the Shinkansen.

While initially the array of train station omiyage may seem baffling (hundreds of choices!), in this article we whittle it down to the most popular picks; the things that anyone would love to receive. We’ll start in Hokkaido up in the north and move down the archipelago station by station, highlighting the most popular gifts sold at each bullet train station. At the end, we also offer some suggestions on what to purchase if you’re looking for souvenirs from Japan to take abroad.

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All about the Kumano Kodo, the World Heritage Sites of the Kii Peninsula【Pics & Video】

Walking through Japan can be a truly uplifting experience. You see so much more by walking through places, especially sacred places. It’s different from walking to them, seeing, and then leaving. Another bonus is (unless you’re climbing Mount Fuji), there are no crowds since, in our modern world, it just doesn’t occur to most people to see things on foot. As we learned previously, quite a few of Japan’s World Heritage Sites are on hiking trails, and the World Heritage Sites of the Kii Peninsula are also located conveniently along ancient pilgrimage routes of the past.

The Kumano Kodo (actually a network of trails) has been traveled by Japanese worshipers for over 1,000 years. By following the route, you not only get to see ancient Japan, but you’ll encounter nature worship everywhere you turn. You’ll feel more like you’re experiencing ancient Japan, rather than just looking at it from the outside.

Come with us now as we hike our way along the Nakahechi route, the well-groomed, often cobble-stoned path that connects a string of quaint little towns where you can book into comfortable ryokans serving gourmet food and offering hot spring baths to soothe your tired muscles. This is glamping—Japanese style!

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10 vegetarian foods you can order at almost any Japanese restaurant

Vegetarians traveling to Japan may find it difficult to find food that fits their dietary lifestyle. Fish seems to be in everything including the soup stock used to make miso soup. To make matters worse, many foods in convenience stores, bakeries or even Starbucks have misleading labels, and that “vegetable sandwich,” or “vegetable pizza” may actually have meat in it too!  You can order foods like okonomiyaki or monjayaki with no meat, but you still can’t be sure it won’t come with shredded fish flakes on top that there isn’t fish lurking in the dashi-based sauces.

I always recommend to my vegetarian friends that rather than asking Japanese restaurants to make something special for them, it’s better to just order food that doesn’t have fish or meat (or dairy) in it from the beginning. Fish has always been a staple in the Japanese diet, but the eating of wild and domestic game was banned for over 1,200 years in Japan, and Buddhist tradition gave rise to a special vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori. Even now, the traditional Buddhist meal called ozen (rice, miso soup, pickles, boiled/simmered vegetables and beans), is still served at funerals in Japan.

So traditionally, there is a lot of vegetarian food in the Japanese diet. You just have to discover it. And RocketNews24 is here to help! In this article we’ll introduce you to common Japanese dishes that can be ordered at almost any Japanese restaurant that have no meat, fish or animal products in them, so, let’s jump into Japanese vegetarianism 101.

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Five nature hikes and trail runs just off Japan’s bullet train

Japan’s major cities offer just about everything, but did you know that includes great nature trails? From forests and waterfalls to ancient temples and shrines, many of Japan’s best hiking trails are literally just a step off the bullet train. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you’ll find it even harder to resist these hikes near Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Got a day–or even a half-day–to spare? You can still get your hike in!

These hiking routes make it convenient to explore Japan’s natural surroundings. No long drives to get out to the countryside, no great changes in altitude, and there’s always a good view waiting at the top. The trails are sign-posted, well-maintained, and many pass through historic districts and are tailored for sight-seeing by foot. You’ll find eating establishments, public toilets, lockers and even hot springs along the way on some of them. In short, Japan is a day-hikers dream! And if you like to run, these hiking courses make great running trails too.

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Everything you need to know about takoyaki (octopus balls) 【Video】

Osaka is famous for Osaka-style okonomiyaki as well as takoyaki. We’ve taught you all about okonomiyaki before, including how to make it at home, and we’ve taken you with us octopus hunting in the Seto Inland Sea where we showed you not only how to catch an octopus, but how to turn its head inside out. So it’s only natural that we feel you are ready to advance your octopial knowledge by exploring what happens to the eight-legged creatures after the catch. Welcome to the wonderful world of takoyaki, battered octopus balls!

Takoyaki is to Osaka what monjayaki is to Tokyo. There’s even a Takoyaki Museum just outside of Universal Studios Japan on the Universal City Walk, with a collection of food stalls where visitors can taste varieties of the snack as well as see the implements used to make it. And since this is Japan, you can also buy numerous takoyaki-inspired souvenirs.

Let’s delve into the delectable world of takoyaki together, after the jump.

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Animal cruelty on Mt. Fuji? We investigate horses in Japan’s tourist trade

A concerned reader recently contacted RocketNews24 with regard to what appears to be a case of animal cruelty on Mount Fuji. As animal lovers, we got right on the case and, while doing our research, found ourselves learning all about abuse issues related to horses and signs of neglect. Our research took us overseas to the U.S., where we sat down to interview a horse trainer who speaks candidly about the reasons animal cruelty is so hard to eliminate.

In this article, we address our reader’s concerns about horses being used to carry tourists from station to station on Mount Fuji. We’ll also learn about equine nutrition, exercise, and mental health.

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Beaver logs, Christmas dinner, and other crazy stuff foreigners bring to Japan in their suitcases

These days in Japan, you can get almost anything. Nonetheless, there are still some things that remain either hard to find or  unavailable at all. We asked our RocketNews24 English writers, as well as a bevy of tourists and expats, what things they’ve made a point to bring into Japan in their suitcases.

If you’re headed to Japan either for a vacation or for a longer stay, you’ll want to take a peek at what items you may want to bring with you. It’s helpful to know, for example, that if you plan on sleeping on a queen size bed in Japan, you should be prepared to bring your own linen because Japan only sells bedding sets up to a double. If it’s Skittles candy you’re addicted to, bring a stash of that too. But some people have more extravagant tastes than others, so you’ll surely find yourself saying, “You brought WHAT in your suitcase??” a few times.

Join us for some head-scratching after the jump!

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Five things you need to know about Obon–one of Japan’s biggest holidays 【Videos & more】

If the idea of your loved ones leaving this earth never to return again seems unfair, then you should consider the Japanese view of the afterlife. While nothing can change death itself, it is comforting to know that in Japan there is a special time of the year when the souls of the dead come back to visit the living. This is called Bon (or Obon using the honorific “o”) a holiday period from August 12-16 (exact dates may vary depending upon location), a time when the entire country takes a break to celebrate the “festival of the dead.” It’s a lively few days when the living and the dead can once again unite to eat together, drink together and share good times.

The Bon tradition gives the country some of the unique dances that Japan is so famous for. Tokushima’s Bon dance, called Awa Odori, for example, draws over one million tourists every year. Traditional Bon entertainment is so lively, colorful and intriguing that a Bon dance is a must-see on every traveler’s itinerary.

Today we’ll introduce you to a five things you should know about Obon. Needless to say, it’s a very exciting time to be in Japan as a tourist!

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10 incredible tales of kindness on Japanese trains, as told by foreigners

We recently regaled you with Truly Terrifying Japanese Train Stories told to us by foreigners, which included everything from runaway trains to perverts and nuns. Today, we’re going to relate to you foreigners’ stories of unbelievable acts of kindness they’ve experienced on Japan’s trains.

You’ve probably already heard a few stories of Japanese people doing good deeds, like lost property being returned or someone helping out the hapless foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. But Japan’s special brand of kindness goes much deeper than this. You know, things that when you see them they make you think, “Wow, that would never happen in my country!”

Join us for some miso soup for the soul: stories of extreme kindness on Japanese trains, after the jump. Read More

10 truly terrifying Japanese train stories as told to us by foreigners

We’ve all heard stories about Japanese trains, such as about the white-gloved attendants who push passengers into crowded rush-hour trains in Tokyo, tales of lost property returned, or even the occasional gripe about women who put on their make-up or men who use electric shavers while riding to work. Or maybe you’ve heard about how often Japanese people sleep on trains.

Well, today we probe a bit further and uncover some stories of truly horrible things that have happened while riding Japanese trains as told to us by foreigners who witnessed them firsthand. From perverts and nuns to near-death experiences, this will be the most entertaining article you’ll read all week! These stories will have you either rolling on the floor laughing, or more likely, crying.

Join us for some true tales of horror after the jump.

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Better than mosquito repellent – The most eco-friendly (and spiritual) way to repel pests in Japan

There’s no need to use toxic substances to kill off unwanted insects in Japan, because there’s a much more eco-friendly method they’ve been using for hundreds of years. Although it may not be scientifically proven, many people feel this is still the best way to get rid of everything from garden aphids to mosquitoes. And if the method has endured for centuries, it must be at least somewhat effective right?

This uniquely Japanese insect repellent is far cheaper than commercial insecticides, easier to implement, and you only have to use it once a year in spring or early summer. And the best part? It involves Japanese sake!

What’s the secret? We’ll let you know after the jump.

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From shady trash collectors to “compensated dating” – 5 crimes peculiar to Japan

Japan is often perceived as a safe country. The nation of 127 million people boasts some of the lowest rates in the world for serious crimes such as murder, robbery, and rape. In addition, Japan continually ranks high on the Global Peace Index. And while it may sometimes seem like stalking and crime against children is rampant in Japan (the stalking rate hit a record high of 22,823 this year, up from 21,000 in 2013), this perception comes largely from widespread media exposure. In the U.S., for example, it is estimated that 6.6 million people are stalked per year.

While serious crime may not rank as high as in other developed countries, there are plenty of the other offenses that Japan excels at, and the country has its share of unscrupulous nationals. These are the things you probably haven’t heard so much about. Today we look at five crimes, some of them strangely Japan-specific.

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Japan’s Top 10 Scenic Train Trips–according to two “densha otaku” train guides

Greg Cope and Ken Mitchell have been riding Japan’s railways for over 30 years. “When I first started to travel around Japan,” recalls Greg, “I was struck by the fact that Japan not only has one of the most efficient railway systems in the world, but they have myriad types of railways, from new to old, conservative design to outlandish.

On one of Greg’s succeeding trips back to Japan, he asked his train aficionado friend Ken, who had seen a lot of Japan during a visit in 1967, to come along. “I devised an itinerary…incorporating a variety of different trains. The trip that I had nutted out from the timetable turned out well and I was hooked on Japan’s railway system,” says Ken.

Greg and Ken wanted to share their Japan rail experiences with others, so to achieve this goal they started Trainaway Tours out of Australia in 1998. These guys are living the train otaku dream, so when RocketNews24 started looking into Japan’s best, most scenic railways, we went straight to them for recommendations. From JR lines to small private rails, tourist trains to steam locomotives, let’s look at their picks for the top 10 train trips in Japan.

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