Friday, October 06, 2006

Staying healthy with "Ningen Dock," being tormented by images of Kyoto, and the Japan-Helen Keller connection

Yesterday was time for my annual top-to-bottom physical, called Ningen Dock, a name that implies a human (ningen) "drydock" where you get checked from head to toe for potential problems. The check-up was quite thorough, including blood and related tests, tests for vision, hearing and lung problems, an ultrasound check of internal organs, and the always fun barium X-ray machine, which tilts your body at different angles while internal pictures are taken, a common test done here due to the high percentage of stomach and esophageal problems among Japanese. The hospital the tests were done at is quite an interesting place, dedicated entirely to efficient testing for problems, from the standard one that I had done to a "Brain Dock" test that checks your brain for possible problems, and important regular tests for women. There are many reasons why the Japanese enjoy the longest lifespans in the world on average, including diets with lots of fish and soy products, smaller food portions and maintaining healthy lifelong relationships, but without a doubt a big factor is a medical system that promotes regular, prophylactic check-ups like the Ningen Dock.

It's interesting to see the myriad of ways that Japan has had an effect on the the West over the years. Charlie Chaplin's manager for two decades was a Japanese man named Kono Totaichi, and Chaplin came to Japan several times, gleaning some aspects of his unique acting style from watching Kabuki performances here. Vincent van Gogh went through a period where he was fascinated with the ukiyo-e paintings from Japan, and made imitations of different works. Albert Einstein spent several months in Japan in the 1920s, giving lectures on his theories and doing things any tourist in Japan would do, including the hot springs circuit (I can picture him trying on a yukata). If you've ever seen an Akita dog, it might have been descended through one given by the Japanese government to Helen Keller, who visited Akita Prefecture (near the northern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu) and showed an interest in Hachiko, the loyal dog who waited patiently for his deceased master to come home for ten years. Of course, Akira Kurosawa's films have had a huge influence on many directors, not least being George Lucas. Whole sections of the Star Wars films, from the bushido-influenced Jedi to the drunk comic relief samurai character (Jar Jar) are taken from Japan's films and culture. The bottom line? If you're as fascinated with Japan as I've been all my life, you've in good company.

It's autumn, and that means that everyone living in Japan must endure a very subtle form of torture. I'm talking, of course, about TV commercials by JR (Japan Railroad) tempting us with fabulous scenes of Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, and bidding us to drop everything and head down there on the next Shinkansen. "I know what we should do! Let's go to Kyoto" (そうだ!京都へ行こう) the slogan goes, and they always employ a variation on the "My Favorite Things" song that never fails to fill you with desire to visit the city as soon as possible. Fall is an especially fine time to be in Kyoto, as the leaves look beautiful in shades of red and yellow and brown, the season called Koyo ("crimson leaves") in Japanese. Unfortunately, it costs about the same for us to go to Kyoto as it does to fly to Rome, so it's not something we get to do very often.

We have yet another wacky Japanese T-shirt for you: a new "warning" shirt to go with our "Death from Overwork" and "No Foreigners Allowed" shirts, this time featuring a message that might serve a few college students out there. "Warning: Extremely Hung Over Now," our newest T-shirt proclaims, showing the image of a person having an out-of-stomach experience at the porcelain altar. Our unique Japanese T-shirts are a fun way to add a little kanji in your daily life, and maybe start up a conversation or two with any Japanese people you run into on the street. All our kanji shirts are printed in San Diego and all sizes are full U.S. standard sizes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lessons we could learn from Japan about "safety driving," pointing with the middle finger, and trivia on Japanese toilets

I've often thought that there are some really good ideas in Japan that the rest of the world could learn from. Right now it's the Autumn Traffic Safety Week, a special time when different groups come together to promote traffic safety, like the Lions Club gathering in front of shopping centers to hand out leaflets reminding drivers to buckle up and put kids in child safety seats (still somewhat rare in Japan). The police have an increased presence during this season, and do spot inspections of drivers on major roads. Drunk driving has become a big topic this year due to a tragic spike in alcohol-related deaths, and authorities are doing their best to combat the problem -- they even caught an off-duty police officer who had been drinking. Other ways of getting the message out to drivers include posting slogans like "Giving the right-of-way to others is a pillar of safe driving" and dressing up famous idols like Yuko Ogura in a police woman's uniform to bring attention to their cause. Using a bit of marketing dazzle to get people to think about "safety driving" (as its invariably called here) is something I'd love to see carried to an international level. Considering that 40,000+ people are killed annually in auto accidents in the U.S. alone, even making a small difference could save a lot of lives. Heck, we could un-do the 9-11 deaths by doing just a few things right on the traffic safety front!

No matter how long I live in Japan, there are some things I can't quite get used to. When Japanese point at something, they will often use their middle finger rather than their forefinger, since the middle finger has no particular meaning here, but it always feels odd. Having a Japanese person apologize for not being able to speak English even though I'm talking to them normally in Japanese is hard to get used to, as is having a vending machine bow to me to thank me for my purchase, by way of a little LCD screen (I try to avoid bowing back). The are many other odd things, too. Men in tailored suits riding a bicycle in the rain while holding an umbrella with one hand. Buying a six-pack of beer for 6x the price of a single can, or picking up a loaf of bread that has all of three slices in the package. Yes, one thing you can say for sure is that living in Japan is never the same old thing.

One of the great mysteries of living in Japan, as any gaijin will tell you, is those kanji for "small" and "big" (小 and 大, pronounced sho and dai) written on most toilet flush handles. Japan is incredibly wasteful of its natural resources, for example plastering the sides of mountains with concrete to guard against rockslides, but it also has a green side, taxing less efficient car engines at a higher rate, recycling many types of paper products, selling refill versions of products to cut down on trash volume and promoting low-energy lighting in homes and businesses. Japanese toilets are set up to conserve resources, too: you can turn the handle to the right to perform a normal flush ("big"), or hold it to the left for a few seconds to just let out a little bit of water ("small"). It took me a few years to make the connection, but of course the "small" character stands for shoben (小便, meaning number 1, literally translated as "small convenience"), while the other turn of the handle stands for daiben (大便、number 2, or "big convenience"). Apologies to Britain's most famous clock, whose sounds rather funny to the Japanese.

We've got some news for fans of our here
2007 calendars today: a huge volley of calendars have come in and are being posted to the site right now. The newly posted calendars include beautiful views of Japan in all four seasons, visually pleasing sushi, lovely idols like Jun Natsukawa and Aki Hoshino, cool calendars for students of kanji, the fantastic art works of Haruyo Morita, Japanese girls in traditional "onsen" hot springs, and more. Browse all our new calendars now!

This month's "Dating-Sim Games of the Month" are I'm Gonna Nurse You 1 & 2, two outstanding PC dating-sim games from Trabulance that blend cute female characters, nurse uniforms, hilarious stories and plenty of good, clean fun in a school for nurses-in-training. Special pricing on both titles this month, above and beyond Monday's price drop in our dating-sim games.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Returning to my Otaku roots, my adventures in a "capsule hotel," and what the Japanese really eat

Time was, people would go to the Akihabara (ah-ki-HAH-bah-rah, meaning "field of autumn leaves") area of Tokyo to buy some cool electronics, browse a wide selection of computers, or maybe hunt for vintage console game software. Today, "Electric Town" is still the single best place to find cool gadgetry in Japan -- although the Internet probably fills this need for a lot more customers than in the past -- but the region is also becoming a "Mecca" of otaku culture for everything from anime figures to doujinshi to cosplay pubs and more. Over the weekend I spent a day rediscovering my own otaku roots, waiting in line with a thousand or so fans of Gainax's "Aim for the Top" series, trying to get tickets to a special mash-up of the original Gunbuster and the new FLCL-ified sequel, complete with the voice actors from both series at the showing. I didn't get in to see the show, so I drowned my sorrows at a maid cafe and headed home.

While in Tokyo, I enjoyed the uniquely Japanese experience of staying in a "capsule hotel," one of the most affordable ways of staying in a crowded Japanese city you can find. Instead of a normal hotel room, you sleep in a "capsule," a closet-sized bed that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie set in deep space. Inside your capsule is everything you need: a small TV, clock radio, pillow and blanket, and a plug for charging your tech stuff. Before retiring to your capsule for the night, you can get clean in the large bath and sauna, great for removing the day's sweat and stress. When it's time to sleep you crawl into your personal capsule, pull the curtain down and start snoring. It's quite fun, and allows you to stay in hip parts of Tokyo like Shibuya for $30 a night, compared with $150-250 for a normal hotel room. On the other hand, it is a tight squeeze in there, and even though I'm just 5'9" (175 cm) I sometimes have to sleep at an angle inside the capsule to create enough space. Back during my bachelor days I went on an extended Capsule Hotel Tour of Japan, riding the cheapest trains and staying in capsule hotels to save money. It was a lot of fun.

I've heard that it's impossible to live in a country unless you truly enjoy the food there, and it's certainly true in my case -- I couldn't be happy in Japan if I didn't love eating here. Although most people probably imagine that the Japanese eat, well, Japanese food all the time, in reality the diet here is quite varied. Some popular dishes aren't very Japanese at all, like the honorary national food of Japan, curry rice, a thick curry stew eaten over steamed rice that was introduced by the British around 1860. Many foods that we consider "Chinese," like chow mein or fried rice, have intertwined with Japanese dishes for so long that the two are almost impossible to separate, but some foods do maintain a separate Chinese feel to them, such as gyoza ("pot stickers"). Various forms of American food exist here, from fast food chains to "fami-res" outfits like Denny's and Coco's, and although you can't find a really outstanding example of the archetypal hot dog or hamburger, at least they have "American Dogs" (what a corndog is called). Popular foods that the Japanese each every day include sushi and sashimi (the latter is raw fish without the rice part), or rice bowl meals like beef bowl or "Parent-and-Child Bowl" (chicken and scrambled egg cooked and served over rice). Noodle-based dishes, from ramen to cold soba noodles or satisfying udon, are also quite common. One of my favorite dishes is Katsudon, a fried pork cutlet ("katsu") served over a bowl of rice ("don"). Because "katsu" also means "to win" in Japanese, it's common for parents to serve this to their kids before a big test or sporting event. Tomorrow my son is representing his school in the city marathon, and so we're off to eat Katsudon tonight, to help him "win."

This month marks a very special time for J-List: our tenth anniversary! It October of 1996 when I officially retired as an ESL teacher to start J-List, which we envisioned would be a kind of "magical toybox from Japan" that anyone could visit, thanks to the mystery of the World Wide Web. We've had an incredibly wild ride over the past ten years, and have loved nearly every minute of it. More than anything, we've been blessed with a broad base of great customers who are genuinely interested in learning more about Japan, and we're very happy to serve you. Thanks for ten great years, and please look forward to ten more!

To commemorate the past ten years and to thank everyone for their support we've got an announcement: we're permanently dropping the prices of nearly all English-translated PC dating-sim games from G-Collections and Peach Princess, bringing the price to many games down to just $29.95 for most CD-ROM versions, or $24.95 for download versions (which require Virtual Mate 2.0), or more. We think these PC dating-sim games, which blend beautiful characters and dramatic interactive stories, including some that can make you cry, are one of funnest ways you can interface with Japan interactively, and we've got big plans for these games in the future. We hope fans will take advantage of the new lower prices and show their support for PC dating-sim games from Japan!

Here's the World Famous Otaku lining up for the Gunbuster event. He woke up at 7 am, he's there fairly early, right? And look, there are only 40 or so people in front of him.

But no! There is another pocket of 500 or so otakus in another part of the building, there to cause me much trouble. Shields failing...hull breach, imminent...

We moved forward to get these little papers with numbers on them, which was the lottery.

In an hour or so, it was time to go see if we were chosen, but my number was not on the list. I felt like an anime character, checking to see if he'd passed the college entrance exam. While I edged forward, I peered out the window to see Yuko Ogura, apparently having been selected as the current "be careful of fire" girl from the post office.

ごめん、紀美子。もう、会えない! (I'm sorry, Kimoko, I'll never see you again!) Part of my anguish is that Noriko Hidaka, the voice of Noriko, is also the voice of Minami Asakura of Touch fame, who was "moe" before they had a term for it (hell, before the word otaku had been coined, back in 1986 when Komiket only only up to 22 or so). Man, I would have loved to been in her presence even though she's a 60 year old woman who can play 15 year old girl roles. But it was not to be...