Friday, September 30, 2005

All about weddings and wedding capitalism in Japan, and what it is to be "good head"

One interesting area of life in Japan is weddings, and Japanese really take the subject of getting married seriously. One of my first instances of culture shock in Japan happened when I was riding my mountain bike (gaijiin always ride mountains bikes here) and came across a sprawling palace that looked like it had fallen out of a time warp from Czarist Russia. Turns out it was a wedding hall, a giant facility created solely for marriage ceremonies and receptions, which are quite common in all corners of Japan. In our prefecture, various companies compete ferociously to capture the largest share of the local wedding market, coming up with interesting themes such as Georgia House, which recreates an Antebellum plantation house from the American South; Lockhart Castle, an authentic castle that was imported from Scotland; and Sharon Gospel Church, a U.S. style Baptist church in Japan.

Japanese weddings are divided into the ceremony (shiki) and the reception (invariably called a "wedding party"). The ceremony is usually either Western style, often with a gaijin minister reading the vows in heavily accented Japanese, or a traditional Shinto wedding with kimonos and ceremonial sake. The reception is usually a two-hour affair, which begins with a speech by the groom's boss and features speeches, karaoke or other performances by friends of both bride and groom. During the party, the happy couple disappear to change clothes several times, reappearing to show off new kimonos or beautiful wedding dresses, a custom called iro-naoshi (ee-ROH na-OH-shi, "fixing the colors"). In Star Wars Episode I, Queen Amidala has a new outfit for most every scene, which is clearly taken from this Japanese tradition. A Japanese wedding will always end with the tearful bride reading a letter to her parents, thanking them for raising her, apologizing for being so selfish, and promising to be happy with her new husband ("shiawase ni narimasu").

Has a Japanese person ever told you are "good head"? If so, it's a complement, although it might not sound like one. In Japanese, the phrase for "smart" (intelligent) is "good head" (atama ga ii), which sometimes gets carried over into English by Japanese still learning the language. The English word "smart" (sumaato) is used in Japanese to mean slender, well proportioned (as in, "That girl is very smart and stylish"). If someone says you have a bad head (atama ga warui), they're saying that you're stupid, the same meaning as that ubiquitous Japanese insult, baka. Some other phrases that make use of the word head include atama ga katai (hard-headed, stubborn), atama ga yawarakai ("head is soft" which means someone who is flexible and open-minded), and atama ga furui ("head is old," i.e. someone whose thinking is old-fashioned).

Announcing the return of Pocky to J-List! Since the summer is so hot and humid in Japan, J-List is forced to remove all chocolate items like Japan's popular chocolate-covered stick snacks when the heat is on. Now that it's starting to cool off, we've got Pocky back on the site in a big way, and we've got many of the new flavors for 2006 in stock for you!

We're also happy to announce that we've gotten our first batch of 2006 calendars in, and have posted them to the site now. These large-format calendars are printed exclusively for the Japanese market, and feature beautiful glossy printing and fantastic original art. We've got more than 50 different calendars featuring all the best anime, JPOP, Japanese idol and Race Queen, and more, on the site now! We're also going through adding pictures to the calendars, so you can see how good they look. Remember, calendars are a very limited-time item, and when they're gone, they will be gone for good. They make great Christmas gifts!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

All about coffee in Japan, where cheap "low mileage" engines come from, and the psyches of students of Japanese

Have you ever strolled into a coffee shop an ordered an "American"? Although green tea seems as popular a drink as ever, the Japanese do enjoy their coffee, too. Traditionally, coffee is something you drink in a dim kissaten (key-SA-ten), or Japanese-style coffee and tea shop, where they serve coffee that's been hand-brewed by pouring boiling water over the grounds. Many coffee shops still do it this way, letting you enjoy the smell of the freshly brewing aroma while you wait ten minutes for it to be ready. If you don't like strong coffee, order an American, which is brewed less strongly. Of course, the local coffee scene has changed a bit since the coming of Starbucks, which opened its first store in Japan in 1996 and has 450+ currently. In contrast to the slowly savored coffee of most traditional Japanese establishments, Starbucks will get you your drink in a hurry, a convenience which has proved popular with many Japanese, especially Tokyoites who don't mind drinking their coffee while standing up (yes, there are tiny hole-in-the-wall Starbucks in Tokyo so small there's not even a place to sit down). Personally, I like a slow-brewed cup most of the time...

I remember back in college, I needed a new engine for the broken-down car I was driving. My mechanic sold me a "low mileage" replacement engine from Japan, which was very affordably priced yet had only something like 12,000 miles on it, making me wonder how such a thing was possible. I was living in San Diego, a place where you regularly put 150,000 or more miles on a car during its life, but Japan is very different from the U.S. Although it isn't exactly a small country -- it would take a week to drive its length -- the reality is that in Japan, you almost always find yourself driving on city roads, with lots of stop lights, one-way streets, and of course fumikiri, or train crossings, which everyone is required to stop at. Sometimes we take 45 minutes to drive somewhere then calculate how far we've driven, and see how long it would take us to drive that distance on the efficient freeways in San Diego. We take freeways whenever possible, of course, but they usually don't go where we need to be, and they're also not free (it costs $25 for us to drive to Tokyo, for example).

You've been in Japan too long when you get a nihongo ga jozu ("your Japanese is very good") and feel really insulted. It's an odd fact of life in Japan, but foreigners who are learning Japanese strive for that magic moment when Japanese will finally stop complimenting them on their Japanese. Being complimented on your language ability is a sign that your Japanese is good, but not quite good enough for the person to just shut up and talk to you normally. After four years of study at SDSU and almost fifteen years living in Japan, I am hopefully as bilingual as I'll ever need to be -- I can go the places I want and communicate with people as needed, although there's always the chance I'll encounter a specialized vocabulary word that I've never seen before, usually at the time and place that is most embarrassing to me.

One of the most popular 2006 calendars is always the Totoro desktop calendars, which always sell very well. This year's Totoro desktop calendar is especially nice, featuring PVC figures of all three Totoro creatures with Mei looking playfully at them over the top of the calendar. Best of all, when 2006 is behind you, you can still use this amazing and durable item as a photograph stand, putting pictures of your loved ones. It's in stock now!

J-List has been involved with bringing Japan's unique dating-sim games -- interactive games for PCs in which you interact with virtual on-screen girls and try to find virtual love -- for years, and we've got an amazing lineup of English-translated games for you. We're happy to announce that Ai Yori Aoshi, a great interactive game about two star-crossed lovers. Kaoru Hanabishi has been betrothed to marry Aoi Sakuraba since childhood, but now he's penniless while she's incredibly rich. A cool interactive PC game for all ages, based on the popular anime and manga, and one of the most well-known games of its type to be ported to English!