Friday, April 20, 2007

Buddhist lucky and unlucky days in Japan, a funeral for a great anime character, and do you have a "good head"?

If you want to get married on the cheap in Japan, I suggest you do it on Butsumetsu ("Buddha's Death"), the unlucky day according to a 6-day cycle that can supposedly affect a person's luck, including cause you to get divorced if you aren't careful. This is one of the more prevalent Japanese superstitions, and it's common for people to consult a special calendar that indicates these Buddhist days before making big plans like getting married, starting construction of a house or taking delivery of a new car. People will always aim for the luckiest day (Taian, "Big Peace"), and avoid at all costs the unlucky day of Butsumetsu, and in certain industries, this can affect the cost of services provided, e.g. weddings get more expensive on Taian, but drop in price on Butsumetsu. Today (Saturday) is Sensho ("Early Victory"), when it's lucky to make important decisions in the morning but not at other times of the day. The other five days, which cycle in order, are Tomobiki ("Taking Away Together") when you must not have a funeral or the dead will take you away with them; Senpu ("Early Defeat") when the morning is considered unlucky; the all-around unlucky day Butsumetsu; lucky Taian; and Sekko ("Red Mouth") when the 12 o'clock hour only is considered a time of good luck.

Raoh Funeral

Yesterday a Buddhist funeral was held for one of the most awesome fictional villains in Japan, Raoh, the ultra-strong oldest brother of Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. One of the most popular (and violent) manga and anime series from the 1980s, Fist of the North Star is the tale of a post-Armageddon world in which all cities and technology have been destroyed and only those who can wield raw strength can survive. Amid all the destruction, four brothers battle each other using ancient Chinese martial arts techniques. The coolest of the bad guys of the series, Raoh has always been the most popular character, and his funeral came complete with a statue of Raoh on his horse, Kokuoh. The funeral was held at the Koyasan Temple in Tokyo and featured all the trimmings, from chanting Buddhist priests and incense and hundreds of fans who had gathered in the rain to pay their respects. It was part PR gimmick, of course, promoting the upcoming animated film that focuses on the death of Raoh. If you're a Fist of the North Star fan, whatever you do, don't watch The Road Warrior starring Mel Gibson or contemplate that the entire series is one big tribute/parody of the film, with various famous personas from the 80s (Stallone, Bruce Springstein, Boy George) added in for story content.

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 who are 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).

We've got a happy announcement for fans of Hirameki International's excellent visual novels and interactactive anime games. All games have been marked down in price by $10 or more, from the outstanding Ever 17 - Out of Infinity to the gorgeous gothic vampire tale Animamundi to the fantastic Ai Yori Aoshi double game and more. The interactive DVD games like Hourglass of Summer and Tea Society of a Witch are marked down too, to just $14.95. Why not pick up some of these great Hirameki titles today?

It's fun going to Tokyo and hitting the toy stores to look for things to order for J-List. This is the "Soft Tank" line of toys. They're awfully cute.

However, "you cannot know which toy is inside."

Really, really tiny manga that are actually printed correctly on those little pages.

Man, I am so ready to start smoking, just so I can carry around these cool Gundam lighters. Hyaku-shiki (the gold mech that Char/Quattro pilots)? A Zeon lighter? So cool.

Or if you want to be really esoteric, go for a ring with the Aniheim Electronics logo on it. This is the company that made the original Gundam RX-78.

Concepts like giri and ninjo, eating raw fish in Boston and Hokkaido, and fun with a Japanese ear pick

No study of pop Japanology can be complete without exploring the twin concepts of giri and ninjo (義理と人情), which crop up in such varied places as classical Japanese theatre, anime and samurai and yakuza films. The words basically describe two concepts of Japanese ethics going back centuries, and form a kind of "golden rule" for how people should behave in society. Giri means "obligation" or "duty" and is used to describe the many things a person should do because it's expected of them -- for example, if someone gives you a gift, you must give a return gift worth half the amount of the original. Since attending a Japanese wedding means you generally have to bring $200 or more as a congratulatory gift, there's a giri-based system in place to make sure fairness is preserved: when a friend who attended your wedding gets married themselves, you go to their wedding and return the cash gift, or if you can't attend for some reason, you make some other gift worth the same amount. Ninjo translates as sympathy, humanity, or kindness, and describes the kind feelings we should have towards those less fortunate than us. Taken together, the ideas of giri and ninjo basically mean "be thoughtful and kind to others, but balance that with attention to your own various obligations in life." While I can't say that ninjo pops up in daily conversation in modern Japan that much, perhaps because it's got such a hard-to-define meaning, you can find many examples of giri at work every day, such as the now-famous giri choco, so-called "obligation chocolate" that women in a company feel they must buy for their male coworkers on Valentine's Day. A huge beneficiary of the concept of giri has been the Amway corporation, who were able to turn the tendency of Japanese to be sensitive to the obligations people might feel to friends into a $1.7 billion direct-sales market in Japan.

I've been seeing a lot of buzz on the Internet about mimikaki, traditional Japanese ear cleaners (often translated as "ear pick"), so I thought I'd write about that today. A mimikaki is basically a little scoop usually made of bamboo which is used to (carefully) scoop ear wax out of the ear canal. I'll never forget the first time I saw one of these little ear cleaners -- I thought it was a spoon for use in tea ceremony, to the endless laughter of my Japanese friends. Since it's rather hard to use an ear pick yourself, a tradition of couples cleaning each others' ears has evolved, to the point where it's considered quite an intimate thing for a woman to do for her boyfriend, almost a non-verbal signal that she's considering him for marriage (a girl might be shocked if a boy she'd just started dating asked her to clean his ears, for example). Just as there are certain kinds of Japanese women who are fascinated with the act of pulling whiskers out of a man's face with tweezers (don't ask me, it's a long story), mimikaki fetishism may be a genetic thing, so your mileage may vary. If you're interested in exploring the allure of traditional Japanese ear-cleaning, we've got several varieties of ear pick on the site.

My Japanese wife and I are funny, each very passionate about each other's country. The other day we were eating sushi for lunch, and she suddenly waxed natsukashii (nostalgic) about a trip to Boston she'd made years ago, at how much fun it was to roam the open air markets sampling the fresh raw oysters. I've never been to Boston, but I recalled for her my fondness for Hakodate (ha-ko-DAH-tay), a charming city on the southern tip of Hokkaido, which is famous for its asaichi (morning open-air fish market) as well as its quaint Meiji Era architecture and one of the most beautiful night views in Japan. In general, my wife has seen much more of the U.S. than I have -- she's been to Mt. Rushmore and Green Bay, Michigan and all over the East Coast -- but I've got her beat when it comes to places I've been inside Japan.

Among the many unique things J-List sells are geta, traditional Japanese footwear worn for hundreds of years. We sell many types of these cool shoes each year, and will be ramping up our selection of traditional Japanese sandals in the coming weeks. Today we've got a really cool pair of traditional setta sandals, made with simulated snake-pattern and form, sturdy construction for years of use.

There are many ways to plug into Japan's popular culture, through music, anime, manga, video games -- you name it. Another way you can interface with Japan is through bishoujo games, the PC dating-sim games that are a popular genre of game that lets you interact with cute anime girls as you try to win their hearts and find all possible endings in the game. One game that will be shipping soon is Doushin - Same Heart, a fresh and unique title in which you play through the eyes of the three Suruga sisters, Ryoko, Maki and Miho, experiencing the game events from their point of view and "zapping" freely from character to character to experience a new aspect of the game story, which is all the more interesting because of the strange power that the three sisters share. Beta testing on this game is nearly complete, and you can preorder this great game and get free shipping when it comes in -- check it out now!

Last weekend we took our weekly (almost) trip to Karuizawa. Unfortunately we hadn't gotten our new MPV yet so we had to take our regular car.

Along the way. This is Mt. Asama, the largest volcanoe in this area. Check out the smoke coming out of the top.

Another image of Asama-yama.

Near a waterfall there was an odd wall of ice (not related to the waterfall at all). We had no idea how this got there.

In the "ugh" category, this is comedian/former pro wrestler Hard Gay in the current issue of Jump. Scratch off the gold circles, and see if you've won...or be traumatized for life? (As a side note, H.G. is not actually gay.)

Japan's latest "boom," the custom of giving sake to your political candidate, and driving in Japan

Japan is the land of the "boom," and you never know when some new thing is going to come out of left field and become wildly popular for a few months and then fade away. One year it was Vietnamese food and Asian-style home furnishings, then it hand-made jam, and then it was the Playboy bunny on just about every T-shirt you saw -- even some kids clothes, since the image is meaningless here, just an icon that looks "American." Now Tokyo is in the midst of a "spice boom," with department stores and specialty shops selling various rare spices, from Indian masala to coriander to raw cinnamon and more. There are even "spice circles" where groups of women explore new spices and how they can be used in cooking. It goes well with the Japanese interest in "aroma therapy" (soothing the mind using various fragrant oils and incense, some of which we have on the website).

It's election season around here, which means one thing: lots of trucks driving around with candidates shouting "I will work hard for you!" and "Thanks for your support!" through loudspeakers. It's also a very busy time for my father-in-law, who runs the small liquor shop on the first floor of our house. It's common for businesses and families to give gifts to their favorite candidates to show their support, most often a large ceremonial bottle of sake called an issho-bin (which translates as "all-your-life bottle," since it's so big you supposedly never run out) with hissho (certain victory) hand-written on the outside of the box. My father-in-law often talks about the old days, when only a few places were licensed to sell alcohol and their shop had lots of customers, but this was slowly eroded by the widespread availability of alcohol at convenience stores and supermarkets. He gets his revenge at times like this though, since you couldn't expect a 7-11 clerk to know the proper way to package and inscribe an important gift for your political candidate -- but he's been doing it for three decades.

One thing you can say about Japan: driving here will make you a better driver. Between learning to park your car with less than 6 inches of space on either side to memorizing winding, narrow streets, driving in Japan can be a challenge. Although Japan has freeways connecting major cities, there's usually not one between where you are now and where you want to go, so almost all driving is done on normal city streets. Learning your way around a Japanese city is made more difficult by the fact that only the largest streets have names, and there's no way to refer to smaller streets other than "that one road with the beauty shop and the convenience store on it." This was especially difficult for me when I first got here: in order to learn my way around the city I lived in, I had to throw away American-style memorization-by-directions ("turn left on College Avenue") and had to instead envision where I wanted to go in 3-D in my mind. It was kind of a bizarre experience. Like the British, the Japanese drive on the right side of the road, so whenever I go back to the States I have to be extra careful to get my bearings straight before getting in the car. It's usually not a problem -- I just make sure I'm closer to the center of the road than the passenger seat is no matter which country I'm in, and it works out okay.

If you're interested in learning Japanese, J-List wants to help you, and we've got a great addition to our "reserve subscription" service: Nihongo Journal, which you can now get sent to you every month -- the only way to get this great magazine sent to you from outside Japan, actually. A perfect-bound magazine filled with Japanese study aids for all levels, you can read essays, follow current events in Japan, learn ways of memorizing kanji, and more. Since articles are written for a variety of levels, you can put away your issues and come back to them later, when your language ability has increased. Features translations in English, Korean and Chinese too, and an audio CD for building listening skills. I personally used Nihongo Journal for many years -- I used to read it the bath -- and highly recommend you all students of Japanese give it a try. (As always, we will only send new issues to subscribers, so if you order the individual issues we've got on the site now, you don't need to worry about getting the issues sent to you again as part of your subscription.)

J-List specializes in the PC dating-sim games from Japan, "pretty girl" games for Windows computers that let you interact with cute anime girls in a wide range of stories and settings, with multiple endings to explore. For fans of the more traditional "H" anime on DVD, we're happy to announce that we're now carrying these titles for you too, with many new titles on the site today.

American brands in Japan, video games for girls, and

One of the more amazing aspects of the Japanese is how aware they are of popular American brands. When my wife and I got married and built our Japanese house, we went shopping for a good bed. I was surprised to find that the top ranked bed we found was American, good old Sealy Posturepedic, and that's what we went with, partially because my wife wanted to be able to buy sheets in the U.S. (bed sizes are slightly smaller in Japan, so U.S. sheets wouldn't fit). If you like motorcycles, Harley-Davidson is incredibly popular here, and there are three or four dealers within 50 km of my house right now. Japanese men are likely to shave with a Gilette Mach 3, and as in the States, a good cup of coffee is defined in relation Starbuck's more often then not. One of the most well-known brands of alcohol is Jack Daniels, a company which has found fertile ground selling their Tennessee Whiskey here, exploiting their long history and building a legend around their name. Of course as an American I know that not every country has a positive image of my country, especially the way world events have been running, but happily, Japan is one of the few places in the world where most people feel unreservedly good about the USA (which is always nice).

Love and Berry Japanese video game

That Sega is one smart company. A few years ago they created Mushi King (Bug King), a card game that capitalized on the fascination boys here have with beetles and other crawlies. You drop 100 yen into the coin slot and get a random "bug card" with bar codes on the sides to indicate what insect you're fighting with, then you do battle with other bugs by swiping your card to choose attacks. It was a smash hit, and for months you had to wait in line to play. Sega recently brought this concept to girls with Love & Berry, a popular game in which girls get cards representing clothes, shoes and other fashion accessories, which they can use to outfit their character and make her look o-sha-re (meaning "cute and fashionable"). The characters then battle by dancing in their cute new outfits, and get points for how good they look while doing it and how well they keep to the beat of the song. Everywhere you go, it seems, there's a crowd of girls waiting to play this game, with mothers standing around talking to each other while their kids wait in line. In generations past, video game arcades have had a bad image, akin to pool halls in a past era, but kid-friendly games like these are slowly changing things.

The Japanese often abbreviate words to make them easier to work with, such as English terms that are clumsy to use in the syllable-based kana writing system. For example, the English word digital camera is often shortened to digi-kame, American comics are known as ame-komi, an American short hair cat is ame-sho, a personal computer is a pasokon, and so on. They also come up with some "English" (quote unquote) abbreviations that can be quite difficult for gaijin to puzzle out. A TV commercial is known as a CM ("commercial message"), and some guys might make a CD of BGM (background music) to play on that special date. Before doing something, you should consider the TPO -- this Japanese word is short for "time, place, occasion." Several English abbreviations which sound strange to my American ear are actually British terms, possibly archaic, like OB/OG ("old boy/girl," i.e. an alumnus of a university), NG ("no good," the opposite of OK), and WC ("water closet"). See if you can figure out what these terms mean:


Answer in the next update!

The Love & Berry machines at Toys R Us.

Lots of kids gathered around, and lots of impatient mothers.

There are spin-offs, too, of course. This is Dino King, where you fight against dinosaurs instead of bugs.

Embarrassments of being a foreigner in Japan, Japan's latest "rose boom" and words that feature a unique kanji

Hello again from Japan, where the zipper in your pants is known as the "window of society" (shakai no mado).

As a foreigner living in Japan, I consider myself an honorary representative of the English-speaking world here, and do my best to present a good image to my Japanese hosts. Nothing is more embarrassing than having my own English abilities let me down for one reason or another, though. For example, there are times when a Japanese person will know some word that I've never encountered -- doctors are always surprised when their gaijin patient isn't familiar with a certain medical term, when clearly every English speaker must know every word that was ever coined. When I taught ESL I was often asked to explain the rules of English grammar, i.e. why this sentence takes a gerund but this one needs an infinitive verb, and all too often I was unable to produce an answer that satisfied my students. Sometimes Japanese people ask you to translate something into English despite the fact that the concept is untranslatable -- since "my city is surely the city of water, poetry and vibrant greenery" is not much use to anyone, even if it is a technically accurate translation of a Japanese sentence. Most embarrassing are times when I can't recall a certain vocabulary word. After fifteen years of living in a foreign country, some terms just sink into the nether reaches of your brain when not recalled for a long time. Then suddenly you need to use he word "obstetrician" and it takes you a minute of deep thought to bring it up.

The Japanese language is often thought of as being extremely difficult, and was called a creation of the devil to halt the spread of Christianity by the original missionaries that came here. I never thought of it as being that hard, although there is one area that is quite challenging for "white boy" gaijin, learning the kanji that are used to express the language in writing. Studying characters that are related to each other is one way to make it easier, and one of my favorite kanji is the enigmantic ki, which is usually translated as spirit, mind, or essence. This kanji shows up in some basic words, like genki (happy, energetic), byoki (sick) kuki (air) and kimochi (feeling). It's used in martial arts, too, such as kiai (the spirited yells you make when you perform moves in karate or aikido). There are plenty of phrases that use the word, too. If you have a short ki (ki ga mijikai) you're short-tempered, but someone with a strong ki (ki ga tsuyoi) is strong-willed and can take on any challenge.

Flowers and Spring go well together, and this Spring Japan seems poised for a "rose boom" (to go with this year's "spice boom," already under way), as companies bring out various products that make use of the fragrant flowers. Candles and incense that contain oils extracted from roses are popular items in hip department stores like Tokyu Hands, and retailers are always interested in finding new ways to package the pleasant aromas for consumers. One company sells high-quality cashmere sweaters dyed pink with rose essence that are just beautiful. The Japanese have a long history of serving flowers as a decorative food, part of the traditional kaiseki meals famous in Kyoto, and sure enough, beautiful Japanese dishes that contain rose petals (which may or may not be eaten, depending on individual tastes) are a hit this season.

J-List brings you Japan's most excellent magazines via our "reserve subscription" service, a revolving subscription whereby we reserve the issues of Japan's best anime, manga, music, fashion, hobby and other magazines for you. Today we've added a new item for you to enjoy: Cure, the excellent magazine of "Japaneseque Rock + Visual Styling" that's loaded with vibrant pictures of Japan's "visual-kei" and gothic bands. As usual, you never need to pay in advance for our subscriptions and you can stop or switch magazines at any time.

Frustrations common in Japan, and the current state of Pachinko, the national gambling game of Japan

Anyone who's ever worked in a Japanese organization for any length of time probably knows the frustration of having a pet idea shot down by the larger organization around them. It's a common occurrance here: a foreigner who naturally sees things through different eyes makes a heartfelt suggestion about something that can be improved, some new way of doing things that's more efficient. Although the Japanese person listening to his idea will repeatedly use the phrase so desu ne which literally means "yes, that is so," in reality the suggestion willusually not be deemed appropriate for the organization and the person be very politely rebuffed. After I finished my career as an ESL teacher, I worked for a few months in our local city office as the "facilitator for city internationalization" or something like that (basically, I was the bilingual person who could translate documents and help out other foreigners when they came in to use city services). During my brief time in the public sector I repeatedly ran across areas I felt could be managed better, but I was told "this is the way it's done here" all too often. My wife and I are involved with Japan Girl Scouts -- I'm the guy who brings interesting things from America for the girls, like the easter eggs we colored two weeks ago -- and we recenty experienced this aspect of Japan while trying to explain the economics of Girl Scout Cookies to the local regional leaders. Our suggestion was to see what we could to do recreate the same experience -- the girls of our troops selling something that both raises money for events as well as advertises the goals of the group to a wide range of people. Unfortunately we might as well have been speaking greek, and our ideas were rejected in record time. I'm not saying that my suggestions are always right, of course, only that there seems to some sort of inbred resistance to new ideas in many organizations in Japan.

One of the most popular pasttimes in Japan is pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball game that can be found in the more than 15,000 pachinko parlors here. A form of gambling, you basically buy $20 worth of steel balls from the counter then shoot them into the machine, holding your hand at just the right angle to make the balls fall into special holes that cause more balls to be paid out. If you do it right, you end up with more balls then you started with, which you "exchange" for "valuable" "prizes" that you can sell for cash at a separate building next door (since pachinko gambling for money is not actually legal). Our prefecture of Gunma happens to be a regular "pachinko central," with most major manufacturers of the machines located here including Sankyo, who employs Nicholas Cage for its commercials. Sadly, pachinko often goes hand-in-hand with organized crime and the yakuza, and it hardly seems a month goes by withour hearing "the man arrested was the propeieter of a pachinko parlor" on TV. Then there's the odd connection with pachinko and North Korea, with many pachinko-related businesses being operated by Japanese of North Korean descent, which leads through various mechanisms to profits being sent home to the mother country. Um, anyone else want to trade places with me? I like living in Japan, but being next door to North Korea is not really the most fun thing in the world...

As with any industry, the pachinko makers must evolve and change in order to keep its customers happy, and the pachinko industry has been quite smart about finding ways of attracting young blood into its establishments. One way they've found to keep the interest of customers in their twenties is by tying the game to popular anime shows, with pachinko machines branded with images and art from anime classics like Fist of the North Star, Lupin III, Golgo 13 and Evangelion. When a new Space Cruiser Yamato series by Leiji Matsumoto was cancelled due to lack of funding, it lived on in a line of pachinko machines that featured the newly designed characters and ships. Do you like the British rock group Queen? Come to Japan and play the Rock You Queen pachinko machines that Aruze has created. There's even a pachinko machine for fans of the heart-rending Korean soap opera Winter Sonata, a smart move to improve the game's image and get female customers in the door. But the coolest new trend in pachinko might be the new moé pachi (mo-EH PA-chi) in Akihabara, where attractive girls in gothic maid costumes will wait on you while you pour your buckets of metal balls into the machines.

At J-List, we live to bring you new and unique products from Japan, including rare Totoro and Studio Ghibli items. Every summer Japanese often use towelkets, a kind of giant towel that's useful as a light summer blanket. I like towelkets because you can use them on hot summer nights to keep the heat at bay, and you can also take them to the pool, since they're fully functional giant towels. Today we've got two cute new Totoro towelkets in stock, great items for collectors this season!

This is one of our favorite places up in the mountains, a restaurant that serves traditional Japanese sweets (meaning manju and stuff like that).

This is the cabinet where they have wax versions of the various foods they sell. Very delicious looking. This is what manju is, basically a bun with sweet beans inside (sounds bad, I know, but it's good when you've been here a while).

Among other things, they sell neri-ame, basically liquid candy that you whip with two chopsticks until it turns to a solid candy you can eat. It's really fun, but pure sugar.

Part of the reason we like this place is, the house is like 150 years old, brought here from some other part of the country. The floor is dirt, like all floors used to be back in the old days.

This is one of my favorite foods, yaki-manju, basically white bread (sans beans, although they have both versions) roasted while a sweet miso and brown sugar sauce is basted on top. Really yummy.

This was the door to the women's room. Er, I'd have thought this was really corny if I'd seen it in the States.

Being fixated on Japanese, bittersweet themes in anime, and my recent culture shock

When you spend many hours focusing on something, whether it's building a model train set or learning a foreign language, it's natural to get a little obsessive over it. I've known many gaijin students of Japanese who had favorite kanji characters that they especially liked to write, a slogan or poem or proverb they were fond of, and so on. One Japanese word I myself like is setsunai (set-tsoo-NAI), translatable as painful, lonely, wistful, or heartrending. It describes the deliciously bittersweet blending of sorrow and happiness that's quite common in many Japanese stories. Enka, the traditional music of Japan that's similar to American Country music in some ways, often deals with such tear-jerking themes as crossing the Tsugaru Straits between Honshu to Hokkaido in the ferry to search for your lost love, longing to return to one's furusato (hometown), etc. Artistically beautiful stories of sorrow can be found in anime, too, like the melodramatic tales of Leiji Matsumoto (Space Cruiser Yamato or Galaxy Express 999), and of course the classic A Dog of Flanders. Another anime that uses setsunai emotions to tell a great tale is Maison Ikkoku, the story of university ronin Godai's long battle to win the love of Kyoko Otonashi, whose husband Soichiro died leaving a hole in her heart. When Godai finally finishes college and finds a job, he's finally able to propose to Kyoko...

Japanese S'Mores

Godai: "Please marry me. I'll never do anything to make you cry. Give the remainder of your me."
Kyoko (after an agonizingly long pause): "Make me one promise. Please...even if it's just for one longer than me. I could never be alone like that again."

(Peter reminds himself to write that "Everything I needed to know about Japan I learned from watching Maison Ikkoku" post...)

You'd think after living in Japan for fifteen years, I'd be pretty immune to culture shock. But when I went with my daughters Girl Scout troop on their annual barbecue yesterday, I had more than my share of surprises. Besides the usual types of meat or sausages, a "barbecue" in Japan can include bean sprouts, eggplant, cabbage, yakisoba noodles and even seafood like scallops. While we were doing the cooking, I was mortified to see the other mothers pull out a bag of squid and plunk the contents down on the grill next to the beef we were grilling, so that the juices ran together -- as an added bonus, there was a sardine that had apparently been in the squid's stomach, that they also grilled that too. Not exactly your average American BBQ experience. Then it was time for S'Mores, or as they call them in Japan, Some Mores, for reasons of simplicity. These were S'Mores with a cultural twist: since there are no graham crackers to be found in Japan, we made them with Saltines. In addition to the standard white marshmallows, one of the mothers had brought flavored marshmallows! It all went very well with the dark chocolate they had prepared.

You often hear about Japan being a place divided into in-groups (uchi) and out-groups (soto), and foreigners here generally have the image of not really being accepted into society -- the term gaijin literally means "outsider" after all. I often wonder if this is really true, though. My own theory is that language determines about 70% of how we interact with others, and if the average person could converse in his own language naturally with someone from another culture, he'd generally treat the person as he would want to be treated. I certainly didn't feel like an outsider as I talked with the other mothers in Girl Scouts about our kids, and a friend of my son's spent several years in the States and speaks English perfectly, making him just like any other American boy even though he's Japanese. Our city is quite an international one, with 3% of the registered population being foreigners from Brazil and Peru, working in factories or in construction and providing many valuable services in the community, since they're willing to do the so-called "three K" jobs that are kitsui, kitanai, and kiken, meaning hard, dirty and dangerous. There are so many children from South America here that our city has a special elementary school for them where they can learn in Portuguese and Spanish. I'm sure that it seemed like a good idea to teach the children of foreigners working here in their native languages, but to my mind it's a very bad thing: it erects barriers between the local Japanese and the kids from other countries and keeps them from getting to know each other. A much better approach would be to teach all kids in Japanese (this being Japan and all), including kanji, with special classes available to kids that need the extra help in their native languages.

J-List carries dozens of great original T-shirts and hoodies, which feature wacky or aesthetically beautiful Japanese messages, and cute original anime designs, too, like Totoro and Cat Bus. We've received word that the Carolina Blue hoodies we print the Cheshire Totoro designs has been discontinued by the manufacturer. This is just a heads up -- if you like the look of this warm, soft hooded sweatshirt, you might want to pick one up before your size is gone.

Our barbecue was a lot of fun, except for the squid. I guess most people don't associate barbecues with chopsticks?

After eating, we worked off some calories playing dodgeball.

Then it was time to add the calories back. Here are the fixins for the S'Mores, which (in case you're not from the States and are reading this) are a magical treat from America consisting of graham crackers, a toasted marshmallow and melted milk chocolate. About 800 calories per serving...

Coffee marshmallow.

The toasting commences.

This one came out the best. Really, the chocolate and marshmallow are so sweet, there's no great loss from the lack of graham cracker. But still, it's a bit like not having spaghetti sauce and substituting ketchup.

All about the word "banzai," a giant love hotel in my city, and more on differences between languages

The word banzai is one of the most well-known Japanese phrases in the West, up there with geisha, samurai, ninja and kamikaze on the list of words most everyone knows. It literally means "10,000 years" and is most famously a gesture of respect for the Emperor. Shouting tenno heika banzai! literally means "May the Emperor live for 10,000 years!" making it analogous to the British phrase "God save the Queen." Although the term will forever carry the image of Japanese soldiers during World War II, it's much older, and has been in use in China since the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century AD. In modern day Japan, it's mostly used as a general term of support, commonly heard at political rallies or shouted by headband-wearing employees of department stores before a big seasonal sale.

Queen Elizabeth love hotel

J-List is based in Isesaki, Japan, a small city near the geographical center of Japan, with a population of around 200,000, thanks to some neighboring towns that incorporated into our city a couple years ago -- pretty much the only way a town's population goes up here. Local landmarks in our city include a giant Ferris Wheel painted to look like a sunflower, a big sign forbidding anyone from bringing nuclear weapons within city limits, and a giant love hotel that looks like the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth. Because Japanese young people usually live with their parents into their 20s (or indefinitely, if they're the oldest son or daughter), it can be difficult for couples to find free time alone to, well, you know. So they go to a love hotel, where they can "rest" (2 hours) or "stay" (all night). Many rabuho (as they're abbreviated) are organized around a theme, such as the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City in Beijing, Alkatraz, and even Disney and Hello Kitty. Since couples going to a hotel want privacy, the management makes sure they never need to see anyone -- at some places, you can check out by phone, and put your money in a tube that will be delivered to the front desk.

When you learn a language as different from English as Japanese is, you have to get used to concepts not always translating over on a 1-to-1 basis -- words just don't match up with each other like they might between say, English and Spanish. When the Japanese talk about other planets, they often use the word hoshi, which is confusing since this word really means star, not planet. There are separate words for white ducks (ahiru) and brown ducks (kamo), and gaijin will invariably produce the wrong word 100% of the time, to his great embarrassment. There are many English loan words used here, but sometimes they're split into two different words, to make them easier for the Japanese to use. For example, the word for a strike in baseball is sutoraiku but a labor stoppage is a sutoraiki (ki on the end instead of ku). Some other dualistisic loan words include gurasu for a glass of water but garasu for glass in a window, or bureiku for taking a break when you're tired but bureiki for the pedal you press to stop your car.

At J-List, we carry a great line of Japanese T-shirts that feature fun, wacky and aesthetically beautiful messages in kanji. Today we're adding some interesting T-shirts from Japan, called "Match Label" since they sport detailed tags featuring matchbook images from the Meiji Era, and a beautiful Japanese image of a lion on the back. The shirts are really well made, with thick 100% cotton fabric, hand-sewn labels, and come in size LL (about equal to U.S. size L).

Let's go eat a steak in Japan!

Besides love hotels that look like ships, my prefecture has a fairly good steakhouse and microbrewery. In the genkan (er, near the front door), there's a fascinating "history of beer in Japan" essay printed on glass. Unfortunately no one in Japan cares about this, so they cover it up with signs.

At this steak house, they put a special daikon sauce on, and then cover it with a napkin to keep the sizzling sauce from burning you.

Here's the steak. It's Aussie Beef of course, since Japanese beef is a huge delicacy and American beef is nowhere to be found.

Here's another pic of a love hotel I found. I just love the silhouette of the couple.

Shinto funerals vs. Buddhist ones, what to wear to a funeral, and the three ages of anime

I attended a Japanese funeral over the weekend, after when the father of a friend passed away at the age of 84. Japan can be a very death-centric place, and when a person goes to that ramen shop in the sky there's a complex rulebook of customs that automatically kicks in, letting everyone know how to act as they express their grief and condolences to the bereaved. This funeral threw us a curve ball, however, since it was a Shinto ceremony rather than Buddhist. As a general rule, the Japanese intermingle these two traditions over the course of their lives, tending to turn to Shinto rites for happy events like baby christenings and the first prayer of the New Year, and solemn Buddhist ones for funerals and ceremonies remembering the dead. A Japanese wedding, when it's not done Western-style, is always Shinto -- think of Arnold's wedding from Happy Days, if you remember back that far. Shinto funerals stress happier images of the deceased's life, make use of evergreen plants as an icon of returning to nature, and play a beautiful Japanese instrument called the sho. Since Shinto funerals are far more rare then Buddhist ones, my wife and mother-in-law (to say nothing of me) weren't sure how to conduct themselves, when or how many times to bow, which was to hold the little camellia leaf they handed out, and so on. As at most such events in Japan, money was involved, with an old 10,000 yen note presented in a special envelope for this purpose, to help the family copy with their loss. You have to use an old bill though -- giving new, crisp money implies the death was anticipated, which is very rude in Japan.

The "uniform" for formal events is the "reifuku" ("ceremonial clothes"), a standardized black suit that looks similar to a tuxedo to Western eyes. The reifuku is a great invention because you can wear it to weddings (with a white tie) or to funerals (with a black tie). There's never a concern for fashion, no worrying about what to wear -- just keep a reifuku suit in your closet and you'll always be set for any formal occasion.

Anime has been with us for a long time, and just like American comics, you can slice it up into different eras. The Golden Age of anime would be the true old-school classics of the 60s and 70s, from Atom Boy and Heide, Girl of the Alps up through the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, the first show where the characters were more important than the robots. Silver Age, it seems to me, would be the 80s, when anime grew in scale and took its place in the minds and hearts of fans all over the world. The Modern Age would be the 1990s through today, when anime truly arrived as a major worldwide industry, influencing everything from Hollywood films to video games. One of the first anime series to enthrall me way back when was Space Cruiser Yamato (aka Star Blazers), which featured fascinating characters that evolved as the story progressed to its conclusion. I'm honored to have a really cool item for Yamato fans -- a giant model of the ship by Bandai that you build in section.

J-List loves the Internet since it makes it easy for us to reach out and meet so many cool people who are fascinated with Japan. On the other hand, we hate one corner of the Internet -- Yahoo's free mail service -- for consistently failing to deliver mail properly to or from our websites, to say nothing of being a source of email scams. If you're using Yahoo's mail service, we highly recommend that you switch to Gmail, Google's reliable, free service. If you'd like us to send you a Gmail invite (which is required to get an account with Gmail), shoot us an email and we'll get one out to you right away!

Chinese New Year and Japan, what Japanese drivers' put on their cars, and our faithful dog

Chinese New Year is going on right now, and throughout Asia people are celebrating the cultural holiday. Although Japan switched from the Lunar Celendar to the Gregorian system as part of its modernization during the Meiji Era, many cultural elements from the old calendar live on. The Japanese follow the Chinese Zodiac, and some people believe what animal sign you were born under will determine part of what you will go on to become. My wife and I were both born in the Year of the Monkey (1968), so we get along, but monkeys and dogs like to fight, so someone born in the Year of the Monkey might not want to marry a Dog Year person -- or something like that. I've noticed that some superstitions remain rooted in the Lunar Calendar. For example, there are "unlucky years" for people, called yaku-doshi (Wiki article), during which you should take extra care to avoid accidents or sickness and avoid starting new projects like building a house -- the ages of 19 and 33 are two unlucky years for women, and 24 and 42 for men. I've observed that these unlucky years seem to follow the Chinese calendar, i.e., they don't kick in until the Lunar New Year has arrived. Chinese New Year is not officially marked in Japan at all, but one old custom from the old days survives: Setsubun, on February 3rd, a day when fathers put on a scary mask and pretend to be a devil trying to bring bad luck into the house. Children throw dried soybeans at the devil and yell oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! ("out with devils, in with hapiness"). On this day, you're supposed to eat your age in soybeans to bring you good luck.

Chibi, 1988-2006

This year is the Year of the Dog, and our New Year's Card this year featured our kids with our old faithful dog, Chibi, who's been guarding our rural liquor shop for the past 18 years (126 in dog years, wow!). We're glad we took the pictures because this morning we found that good old Chibi had passed away in the night. He was a good dog, always happy to go for a walk on his little snub legs, and while he was a bit of a sukebe (more than most male dogs or humans, anyway), he was always faithful to us. He will be missed -- my daughter was so boro-naki (bawling he eyes out) she couldn't go to school.

Getting a drivers' license in Japan is a little different from how it was for me back in Califorina. First, the driving age is 18, but only students who have already graduated from high school can start studying for their license, which causes a huge rush during the summer. Students must go to an intense driving school, usually for a month but longer if they have trouble passing the test quickly. The cost is a cool $3000, quite a bit more than the $200 I paid for two days of driver's training back in 1984. Drivers who have had been driving with less than a year need to have a special sticker on their car, called a Beginner's Mark, to let others on the road know that they're inexperienced drivers. By customer request, we've got these cool Beginner's Mark magnetic stickers in stock on the site now. They're a great way to stand out on the road and bring shock to any Japanese who might see your car. Plus they're highly reflective and make your vehicle more visible on the road.

Various pic I've got in my collection. DId I mention they sell iTunes and iPods at Seven Eleven Seven & i Holdings?

Another item I can't remember if I posted. This is a "Star Wars Episode III Cereal Bowl" set from Kellogg's, sold only in Japan. Comes with bowls, coffee cups and little plates featuring Darth Vader. It's right up there with my R2-D2 cereal holder that's also very cool (remind me to post pics of that sometime).

Found a picture of the plate. While the grown-up, slightly cynical Star Wars fan in me says, why show Darth Vader with the red light saber in the Mustafa flames, I can overlook it becauase of my son, who allows me to enjoy childhood again vicariouosly through him.

Ad for a Proctologist inside a train. It might have been less bizarre if the train hadn't been decommissioned and turned into an udon and soba restaurant, forcing us to look at this while eating.

A sign in a toy shop that says, "We regret that we are forced to decline all persons asking us questions like, 'Where is the Maid Cosplay Coffee Shop'' and so on."

Our love of Japanese hot springs, thoughts on government and the private sector, and the most beautiful Pocky box ever

As part of my son's homework, he keeps a diary about the past day's events, alternating entries between Japanese and English. It seems that every Sunday night's entry is the same -- he writes about what Japanese hot springs we went to that weekend. Japan is a very volcanic country, which means there are a lot of underground hot springs, or onsen (pronounced OWN-sen) to tap for bathing. Most every weekend we head out in our Mazda Bongo Friendee (sort of an MPV with a top that can be raised, like the old Volkswagon Vanagons) and enjoy a steaming hot bath somewhere in the mountains. Bathing in hot springs has been a part of Japan's culture for centuries -- one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan is Kusatsu (koo-SA-tsoo), located right in our prefecture, and it's been known for its baths for the past eight hundred years. One of the small linguistic quirks of the Japanese language is that there are separate words for cold water (mizu) and hot water (yu), and gaijin will invariably use the wrong word, to the amusement of everyone here. Bathing is so important in Japan that the word yu commonly gets the honorific o attached to the front (e.g. o-yu), as a sign of respect.

Picture of Japanese onsen

Last weekend we picked a nice-looking onsen in a village called Showa-mura and headed up there. It wasn't our first choice for a destination, but some of our regular hot spring spots are located high in the mountains, and we didn't want to hassle with driving in snow. The facility, the Showa-no-yu General Welfare Center, was pretty much what we'd come to expect: a washing area where you clean your body before bathing; a good mix of indoor baths to choose from; an outdoor bath where you can take a dip while enjoying "vibrant greenery"; and a sauna. There was also a large common room where you can relax, have a beer and enjoy some karaoke or a game of go after your bath. Also as expected, the facility was built by the local municipal government and operated with tax money, rather than by a private company. From swimming pools to the Kampo life insurance sold by the post office to a chain of luxury hotels subsidized by postal savings accounts, there are dozens of areas where the Japanese government intrudes on the private sector, doing things that often could be done efficiently by regular companies. The overall effect of this interference by the government is that Japan is less of a market-driven country and closer to something like socialism, a fact born out by the extremely low rate of entrepreneurship here. On the one hand, I'm happy to have access to a nice, hot bath in a small village that probably couldn't support such a venture without public money, but on the other hand, I wonder if Japan's public works-based approach to driving the country forward can be sustained.

Pocky has gone from being a wonky snack that a few anime fans knew about to being a major force in the world-wide snack market. The chocolate-covered pretzel stick, named for the pokki! sound they make when you break one, was first introduced in 1965, by Glico, a confectionery company founded by a man who swore to improve the health of Japan's children by introducing sweets containing glycogen harvested from oysters (which is where the name Glico comes from). There are many different flavors of Pocky available, from traditional chocolate to slightly bitter Men's Pocky to the luxurious line of Pocky that look like decorated cakes and even the surprise of the season, Black Sesame Pocky. Now Glico has introduced two new varieties of thick Mousse Pocky for 2006: Murasaki Imo (a purple-colored sweet made with sweet potato), and a favorite of J-List customers, the new Green Tea Mousse Pocky! In addition to being just plain delicious, the new Mousse Pocky boxes are some of the most beautifully-designed I've ever seen, with amazing traditional Japanese images on them. Sure to be a collector's item in years to come -- no B.S., I think I will save a case of each in a cool, dry place just in case it goes up in value someday. Available by the case, too!

Happy news at Torino, things foreigners find odd when they come to Japan, and all about Japanese heaters

The Torino Olympics have been going on for two weeks, and Japanese fans have been eagerly watching all the events as they cheer on their athletes and hope for some strong performances. Sadly, Japan had been having one of the worst outings ever this time, with not a single medal to show for their athletes' years of preparation and hard work -- not a gold, not a silver, not a bronze. All this changed this morning when Shizuka Arakawa slam-dunked her figure skating routine and earned Japan not only its first medal of the Torino Olympics, but its first-ever gold medal in figure skating, too. As is common- place in Japan, she bowed petitely to her fans, showing the famous Japanese modesty that I've talked about before -- a bit of a change from the emotion and exuberance displayed by most athletes from the U.S. and Europe. In Japanese, athletes get a special suffix on the ends of their names, similar to -san or -sensei, which is -senshu, 選手, meaning player or team member. Good job, Arakawa-senshu!

It's getting warmer, but winter is still very much with us, making the momohiki (Japanese for long underwear) a requirement for survival for this San Diego boy. One of the problems of winter in Japan is that there is no central heating, and you always heat just the room you're currently using, usually with an electric kerosene heater that blows hot air, or with a simpler free-standing kerosene heater, which the Japanese call a "stove." Going from a heated room to one that you haven't been using brings a huge drop in temperature, and one big problem is trying to sleep in a freezing bedroom if you forget to pre-heat your room. I've found the perfect solution to my heating woes, however: an oil-filled radiator-type heater with a 24 hour timer. I can program it to turn on 2 hours before I go to bed, switch off during the night, then come back on again in time to make the room toasty in the morning. It's a life-saver for me.

When foreigners visit Japan, there are many things that stand out as odd to them. Using coins for the equivalent of $1 and $5 bills, which Americans aren't used to (although it's really convenient, trust me). Horizontally oriented stoplights (except in Northern Japan, where heavy snowfall requires that the lights be vertical, to keep the snow from piling up). Stores which let you know they're about to close by playing Auld Lang Syne through store speakers. Drinks with names like Pocari Sweat and Calpis. High school girls wearing those outrageous bulky "loose socks." Toilets without seats. It's all very odd, but then again, that's the fun of going to another country, seeing what it has to offer and comparing it with things back home.

Perhaps no word describes the heart of otaku culture in Japan better than moé, pronounced moh-EH. Originally meaning a seed budding as it grows into a plant, the term has come to describe the super-stylized "ideal girl" characters with big eyes and pure hearts that you see so much in anime, manga and dating-sim games. So-called moekko characters are loyal, honest, and dedicated, and of course impossibly kawaii (cute). Similar to the word otaku itself, a formal term which means "you" or "your family" but which has come to describe aficionados of just about anything (train otaku, karaoke otaku, there are even Louis Vuitton otaku out there), the term moé can also refer to a "burning passion" for anime-related hobbies. If you love the bikini idol Yuko Ogura, you are Yuko Ogura moé, or if you like girls wearing anime costumes, you are probably cosplay moé. We've created a new J-List original T-shirt incorporating the moé kanji, a super way for otaku to show their love of Japan popular culture with pride. And we think it looks great!

Hello Kitty Teacher Stamp Set. Hello Kitty stamps that say things like "thank you" and "you did a good job."

Here is a "stove" in case you're wondering what they look like. Didn't have a "fan heater" around to take a picture of the other type.

This is what they look like with the lights off. Actually, if you're looking for a romantic evening with a girl on a budget, these will fit the bill nicely. (No fireplaces or bear rugs in Japan.)

Talking about moé. This is the maid cafe that appeared in Densha Otoko. I really dig on the cat ears.

"As seen on TV."