Friday, July 07, 2006

What you can learn about public baths from Street Fighter II, Japan and Yellow Cabs, and the end of 0%

There are many things to like about Japan: beautiful temples, delicious food, cherry blossoms, and Hello Kitty bento boxes. But another really cool aspect of the country are the baths, which come in two flavors: sento, or public baths (like the E. Honda level in Street Fighter II), and onsen (OWN-sen), or natural hot springs. Sento are the public bathing facilities that everyone used to use, back in the days when no one had their own baths at home. The name refers to the old currency of "sen" (1/100 of a yen), which used to be common in the days before World War II, before being retired for having so little value. A sento is just a low-cost ($2-3) place where you can enjoy several large baths, and maybe a Western-style sauna, and they often have beautiful ukiyoe style art painted on the walls. If you're too poor to afford a nice house with its own bath, you have to hit the sento every day, and thus there's a kind of bohemian feel to the places. While the traditional sento have a Showa-era charm to them, most people would rather go to an onsen, a bath warmed by an underground hot spring, all too plentiful in volcanic Japan. Onsen can be found in all corners of the country, although our own prefecture sports several popular onsen towns known for the quality of their baths. The best kind of onsen bath is the rotenburo (roe-ten-BOO-roe), or outdoor bath, which allows you to bathe while looking at the "vibrant nature" all around you, or up at the stars high above. Once I took a bath at a very nice onsen in Niigata Prefecture (the "Snow Country" of Kawabata's famous novel), with the snow falling all around us while we were in the bath. It was quite an experience.

Japan has certainly had a rough decade and a half. During the 1980s the country underwent a massive real estate bubble, during which all the land in Tokyo was worth more than the entire USA, on paper. When the bubble burst in 1989, it brought on a massive economic hangover which took years to recover from. The bursting of the Tokyo land bubble brought many changes, including the end of the famous institution of lifetime employment (now few sararimen expect to hold the same job all their lives), and it also created an opening for American companies to assume a dominant position in several industries, from Coca-Cola joining the "Big Four" Japanese beverage makers to Toys "R" Us changing the face of the toy industry in Japan. During the off-again, on-again recession years, Japan took a "0%" approach to restarting the economy, lowering the interest rate for banks to nil, which allowed real interest rates to hover around 1.9-2.5% for many people. This summer, this policy will be officially ending, and Japan is bracing for a return of "real world" interest rates, and everyone is praying the change won't cause more economic hard times for the country.

It seems that Japanese people never fail to surprise you. You would think that they'd be horribly offended by slurs like "yellow monkey," and yet there was a well-known rock band in Japan that used that name to increase their fame. Similarly, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto played in a band called the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a name which sounds a little odd to gaijin like me. In the 1990's, writer Shoko Ieda wrote a novel called Yellow Cab about the strange phenomenon of normally demure Japanese females going to New York and becoming nymphomaniacs when they find themselves suddenly free of Japan's restrictive society, and the term came to describe all Japanese females who are loose sexually. You might assume this term would be offensive to the Japanese, but again, you'd be wrong: one of Japan's most famous talent agencies is called Yellow Cab. They handle virtually all the top swimsuit idols in Japan, including Megumi, Eiko Koike and Eriko Satoh, and all girls who want to be "talents" (a catch-all word that refers to any kind of young swimsuit idol, singer or actor) dream of being scouted by them.

Every month we'll have a different "Dating-Sim Game of the Month," showcasing a game we think is really exceptional, which we'd like to recommend to everyone. This month the game is Little My Maid, a personal favorite of mine because of its excellent blend of beautiful characters, innovative interactive system and great story (based on a famous story by Hans Christian Anderson). You are transported to a mysterious mansion with three maids, who you can use any way you wish -- ring the gold bell for loyal Mari, and silver bell for headstrong Hina and the copper bell for the super-cute Mayu. You must solve the mystery -- what is the secret of these maids, who are thousands of years old? Special pricing on this outstanding game, this month only!

Got a few more cosplay pics from Anime Expo to show you. This is a group from Rayearth, one of my favorite shows.

Charging the iPod with the Domo-kun.

File this in the "kind of scary, but cute nevertheless" file.

If you haven't seen Burst Angels, hunt it down. It's quite a good show, the perfect blending of Bubblegum Crisis with Eva. Plus the robot that rollerskates on the freeway is pretty cool.

This is Gainax Boy, a fan who seems to be bucking to get himself added into a Gainax anime, Toren Smith-style.

A giant sized Voltron! Is this not the coolest thing you've ever seen!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The end of Anime Expo 2006, North Korea and their damn missles, and views on my ESL teaching days

Once again, Anime Expo has come to a close, and we're all going home, tired but feeling very energized. The show was a blast, a real matsuri (festival) in the Japanese sense, and we had more fun than than we thought possible. As usual, there was more than one event being hosted in the hotel we were saying at -- this year there were cosplay-clad anime fans alongside participants in the leading gay square-dancing convention in the U.S. ("When You Wish Upon a Thar"), and a conservative Christian group, all rubbing elbows with each other. By the time the weekend was over, the hotel staff's eyes were spinning like cute little manga characters. Once again, thanks to all readers who came by to say hi!

Japan is hopping right now over the missile that North Korea's Dear Leader has test fired. The Taepodong-2 is designed to reach all the way to the U.S., and it therefore causes a great deal of worry to Japan, who lie well within its range. The test appears to have failed, but it's still causing plenty of worry throughout Japan, with every channel reporting on the crisis. Yasu, here in San Diego with me, is filled with worry that the missle test might lead to something more serious, that would affect his wife and two daughters. We certainly hope for some sanity in North Korea already.

Before starting J-List, I did what most "white boy" gaijin in Japan to: I taught ESL, or English as a Second Language. I really enjoyed my time as a teacher, which allowed me to meet literally hundreds of Japanese students of all ages, and I got a lot out of my experience. One odd by-product from my teaching years was, I developed the innate ability to speak "easy English" to Japanese people, unconsciously altering my speech to make it easier for them to understand, by avoiding difficult words I knew would cause problems for them, or repressing some elements of my native California dialect ("gnarley tight, dude"). The problem is when this "reduced English" became my natural way of speaking, which would happen when I went for months without meeting any native speakers. Once I even met a Japanese person whose English was so good, she realized I was speaking "easy" English, and called me on it. It was rather embarrassing and I didn't quite know how to react.

We're happy to officially announce a new game today, which is being translated for future release in English: YUME MIRU KUSURI :: A Drug That Makes You Dream, a great title from RUF that explores life, love and growing up in modern Japan. Loaded with teenage angst, confusion, frustration and wonder, and beautiful artwork that draws the player in, this is a dating-sim like no other. We hope you'll preorder this game for free shipping when it's ready.

The longest-running movie series is Otoko wa Tsurai yo, or "It's Tough Being a Man," which told the story of traveling salesman Tora-san over 48 installments. In each movie, Tora-san goes to some region of Japan to sell his wares, and has an unlikely romance with a beautiful woman from the area, which invariably ends with him getting his heart broken. The movie is incredibly famous in Japan, and has fans all over the world. We've gotten in a cool T-shirt that features the well-known Otoko wa Tsurai yo logo, great for kanjiphiles who want to wear something cool and unique!

Whenever we do a con, we tend to go to the same places to eat every year. This is the somewhat cool restaurant at a mall near Disneyland we always go to.

Ceaser salad with, er, a wall of baked parmesan cheeze.

This is the drink of the Gods, Sangria, which I didn't know about before we came here. It's really good, if you haven't had it. It's basically wine, fruit, and fruit juice (and gin, if you're lucky).

Dude! This place has s'mores! Without Saltine crackers too! I feel like photoshopping in a little Calcifur into this picture but I am too tired.

The marshmallow roasting commences...


Er, I hate to compare America and Japan here, but this little, lame-ass finger wipe is nothiing compared to the glory of a hot oshibori towel you'd get in Japan. So there .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Notes from Anime Expo, culture shock and toilets, all about MOS Burger, and fun in Graceland

Hello again from an extremely enjoyable Anime Expo, which is still going on here in "Animeheim, CA." We're having lots of fun, meeting customers and shaking hands and showing off a lot of our cool products -- X-Change 3 and Enzai are flying off the table, along with our T-shirts, Domo-kun and other items. If you are in the area, do try to make plans to come down to the show -- it rocks like no other event in the animeverse. We'll be here through Tuesday!

I've had many kinds of culture shock since I moved to Japan back in 1991. Vending machines selling beer, eggs and rice (as well as a few unmentionables). Advanced technology and old, dilapidated buildings set right beside each other. Squid on pizza. But when I married my wife and made plans to come live into her house -- since I am a son-in-law who did not take the last name of my wife, I am a "Masuo" (mah-suu-OH), named after the husband in the long-running anime Sazae-san, who is in the same situation as me -- I had another shock: the toilet in her house was a bo-ton (ボットン、pronounced bo-[small pause]-TON) (a "small tsu" if you know what that is), essentially a sceptic tank with a great hole over it. You squatted over the hole -- a Japanese-style squatting toilet, of course, not a sit-down toilet as we would have in the U.S. -- and did your business, waiting for several seconds until you heard the bo-ton (splat) sound. I wasn't too thrilled with living in a house with an old-style toilet like this, and laid down the law: if I was going to live there, we were going to have to "reform" (what they call remodeling) the house and put in a modern toilet, which we happily did.

When it comes to fast food hamburgers in Japan, you think of McDonald's, like most other places in the world. In addition to the usual hamburgers and "Biggu Makku" that you'd imagine, they sell Chicken McNuggets, (which are originally based on Japanese tempura), Teriyaki McBurgers, and the new Shrimp McSandwich, shrimp pressed into a patty and batter-fried, which is kind of gross to me. But according to many fans, the better fast food experience can be had at MOS Burger, the #2 Japanese hamburger joint. Established on March 12, 1972, MOS Burger set out to bring a higher standard of quality to the lowly hamburger, with better quality meat and organically-grown lettuce and tomatoes. Although the MOS in the name might give the occasional gaijin pause, it stands for "Mountain, Ocean, Sun" and does not make Japanese people think of moss being scraped off a tree trunk to be put on your burger. Every few months MOS Burger comes up with something new and interesting, like the Curry Naan Dog, a hot dog served on Indian naan bread with curry over the top. Although foreigners in Japan usually like the offerings of MOS Burger, the portions are so small that we usually need to order two sets in order to feel full.

Prime Minister Koizumi, hands down the coolest leader Japan has had in the past few decades, will be stepping down in a couple months, as his five-year term comes to an end. He's just finished his "sayonara tour" of the U.S. where he went with President Bush to Graceland to sing a duet of "Love Me Tender" with the President. A noted fan of Elvis, the Japanese Prime Minister thanked the U.S. for the great songs of The King.

Pics from the show. These guys were makin' us happy, wearing our kanji T-shirts.

Cool Clone Trooper. My son would have been thrilled.

A really cool person who let me take her picture. She reviews our "H" games for some websites. Not your typical H-gamer, or is she?

Miyazawa from Kare-Kano.

Hey, she's got poop on her head!

Lots of goth-loli types at the show, like, maybe 10% or more of all cosplayers.

Not sure who the character is, but we like her.

Another lovely cosplayer.

Three lovely cosplayers.

Domo-kun! Arrrrgh!

At J-List, one of the most popular products we've sold was the Yatta! comedy DVDs by a group called Happa-tai (Fig Leaf Squad). These guys were way funny.