Friday, September 04, 2009

Innovation and Recession

It's interesting to see the way economic hard times bring out new innovation in people and companies. I read a news report that the convenience store chain Lawson was going to join forces with a popular line of drug stores to allow customers to buy medicine more conveniently. There are many laws that govern how medicine is sold in Japan, and even "over the counter" medicines can only be carried in stores that employs a licensed pharmacist to give advice about this product or that. Under the new plan, there'll be a pharmacist on site at your local convenience store, ready to help answer questions and give basic medical advice -- maybe it will catch on and be the Next Big Thing in convenience stores. I've been through so many economic downturns here in Japan that I'm convinced that Japanese companies are unable to discard their business-as-usual attitudes and innovate at any other time.

Lawson is "Your Town's 'Hot Station.'"

Pop Stars and Jidai-geki

The other day I turned on my TV and was greeted with an unexpected sight: popular SMAP singer and "talent" Tsuyoshi Kusanagi -- yes, the guy who got arrested for public nudity in a Tokyo park at 3 am a few months ago -- dressed up in full samurai armor as he promoted his new film. Jidai-geki, or samurai period dramas, are a big part of popular culture in Japan, and there are several quality historical dramas on every week, such as the ongoing adventures of Mito Komon, a traveling cloth merchant who is secretly an agent of the Shogun, and who pulls out his official Tokugawa crest exactly at 8:46 in every episode since the series began in 1969. Virtually every major actor or actress comes to a point in their career when they'll be called on to perform in one of these historical dramas, and it's quite interesting to see how stars like Gackt will translate historical personas into their own style on camera. One interesting subset of the jidai geki genre is the "time traveling samurai drama," such as the Sengoku Jieitai movies in which Japan's modern military is conveniently transported back to the country's "Warring States" period where they have a chance to change history with their advanced weapons. In Kusanagi's new film, he plays a warlord who is visited by a Japanese boy who has accidentally time-slipped into the past from modern-day Japan. (Hmm, that sounds kind of familiar.)

Scenes from the upcoming time-slip samurai drama Ballad, said to be the "Titanic" of Japan.

Hamburg Steak, the Other Red Meat

Before I came to Japan I had many preconceptions about the place. For example, I expected everything to be sleek and modern, yet in reality the country is both technologically advanced and very old-fashioned, with gleaming glass buildings standing next to delapidated old homes made of corrugated tin, and women pecking away on cell phones while wearing a traditional kimono. For some reason, I also assumed the Japanese would not eat meat very often since it surely must cost too much. In reality, one of the cornerstones of the Japanese diet is the "hamburg steak" (e.g. Salsbury steak), made from hamburger (no, not that kind), seasoned bread crumbs and sliced vegetables, and whether it's covered with a French demi-glace or a Japanese-style sauce made from grated radish, it's a delicious and affordable meal for families. The name is quite interesting by the way: to the Japanese, a "hamburg" steak is made from hamburger meat and lacks bread around it, while a "frankfurt" is a frankfurter eaten alone, without a hot dog bun around it. If you're interested in learning to make Japanese home-style dishes, J-List happens to have a large number of bilingual recipe books in stock -- browse them now!

I swear, I am not going to write about food anymore -- I'm starving now!

Hamburg steak is a popular dish in Japan, and great with steamed white rice.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Moero Downhill Night Golden Master!

Moero Official Site

If you're a fan of PC dating-sim games from Japan, we've got a treat for you: the awesome Moero Downhill Night has been declared "Golden Master" and is on its way to the factory to be duplicated. An innovative game that blends Initial D-style "drift" racing, fast cars and super-cute girls, you play Daichi, an average Japanese youth who finds himself in the role of a legendary racing navigator who can guide any driver to victory. In order to win the hearts of the beautiful girls as you race, you'll need to bring them across the finish line first. Features beautiful 3D animated racing scenes made by the staff of Initial D! The first game in the trilogy will be released soon, but you can still preorder it for free shipping when it's ready in a few weeks. We're happy to let everyone know that the Moero Downhill Night official website is up and ready for you to check out the characters.

Cute Characters in Japan: Commodore Perry??

Japan certainly is a country that's in touch with its "inner cute," and it's amazing how easily boring products can be turned into adorable objets d'art, like these everyday household items we sell on J-List. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, it's common for cities or organizations to create "mascot characters" to represent themselves, and when I took my trip to northern Japan I knew I'd encounter a few of these cute creations. Commodore Perry is the man who forced Japan to end its isolationaist policies and trade with the West, and since he's very popular in Japan I wasn't surprised to see a cute-ified version of him in Hakodate -- of course named Perry-kun -- and I couldn't resist buying little cookies with his face as a gift for the J-List staff. They had also transformed the historical character of Toshizo Hijikata, who founded the famous Shinsengumi samurai brigade which fought on the side of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Meiji Restoration and died at the Battle of Hakodate in 1868, into a similarly cuddly mascot to promote the city and its local products.

There's nothing that can't be made kawaii in Japan.

All About Japanese Toilets

For whaever reason, Japanese toilets seem to hold a special fascination for us gajin. Whether it's the convenience of toilet seats that wash and dry your butt for you while emitting negatively charged ions and playing music via a dedicated SD card slot, or the cultural challenge of using a traditional Japanese-style seatless toilet without falling in, Japan's porcelain altars never disappoint. Japanese toilets can even save you from the embarrassment of others hearing the various bodily sounds you make when you use them, thanks to a device known as an Oto-hime (a play on the name of a princess from a famous Chinese fairy tale with the characters rearranged to mean "Sound Princess"), which is an electronic box that makes chirping noises or white noise when a toilet is being used. I noticed that a smart iPhone developer has brought this concept into the 21st century, with OtoKun (iTunes store link), a .99 cent software application that makes these noises for you. I'm sure the person will sell a ton of copies here in Japan.

Japanese toilets are the most advanced in the world.

Japanese Coverage of the Election

The fallout from the Japanese election continues, with many hours of TV coverage dedidated to discussing the various issues related to the change of ruling party. As always, I'm impressed with how open Japan's media is about discussing topics in public forums, without a lot of emotional self-serving and posturing that can often be seen on American news. In one live news show I saw, Secretary General Katsuya Okada of the newly elected Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was talking about his party's stance on various issues with a panel of various experts. The interesting thing was, the topics they were going over were being pulled in live from emails and faxes that viewers were sending in live, not pre-scripted ahead of time as you'd expect. Thus many thoughtful questions were brought out into the open, like, if the DPJ is going to give extra financial support to families with children, what about married couples who are trying but are unable to get pregant? Or, what is the official policy on yutori kyoiku, the policy of "easy does it" education that's being pushed by teachers' unions yet which caused a sharp reduction in test scores by Japanese children compared to other Asian countries. Another show I like to watch is "If I Were Prime Minister..." in which the comedy team Bakusho Mondai have hard-hitting discussions with real politicians, talking about usually tabboo subjects like, should Japan arm itself with nuclear weapons in response to the threats from North Korea. In short, the level of professionalism and open political discussion I see on Japanese TV seems to be to be quite good, and it'd be nice for some of the ideas in use here to be imported back to America.

I have no ides what they mean by Ion! but this picture is cool, so I'm posting it.

Pictures from Aomori and Hokkaido, if you want them

Yes, I am finally getting around to posting my pictures from my trip to frozen (well, slightly cool) northern Japan. Enjoy, if you like. All pictures should be clickable so you can get the large versions.

Well, it was time for our trip to northern Japan, a trip I've always wanted to take with my son. Since he was going to be a jukensei or test student, studying for his high school entrance test, it was now or never. High schools are not required as in the U.S. and there's competition to get into good high schools.

We took an overnight highway bus up to save time, since driving the 9 hours up Japan would have left little time to do actual stuff while there. Here's the world famous gaijin in Japan with his laptop, cookies and some chu-hai, computing during the drive up via his iPhone with the 3.0 tethering hack. I was having loads of fun in that bus, let me tell you.

Arrived in Aomori City too early to do anything useful. Even McDonald's was closed. Here's the Prefectural Office of Aomori that we decided to check out.

They have Japan's most pathetic Animate branch, a tiny shop on the 4th floor of a building.

Aomori is a slightly more rural area than Gunma, although the city itself is larger than our city of Isesaki. Here's a roadside stand selling scarecrows, something I've never seen before.

Have I mentioned that I love Japan? Always something to entertain you. Happy drug!

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Driving around in a rented Mazda Demio around the tip of northern Tsugaru, the penninsula on the left of the prefecture. Incidentally, the penninsula on the right is called Shimokita, and there's supposedly a lot of rivalry between from the two people, or so enka singers on TV say.

This is Hirosaki Castle, a beautiful castle in Aomori. Although it started out as a small castle town, it's grown to a very large city. Interesting to see the mix of modern and very old in Japan.

We took the ferry across the Tsugaru Straights, the scene of so many enka songs. The most famous of these songs is Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyu-geshiki or Winter View of Tsugaru Straights. Another really famous song is Kaikyo sung by the famous Yoshi Ikuzo, whose hometown we visited while in Aomori.

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Now that we were in Hakodate, Hokkaido, we had to enjoy some real sushi. We found a great kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) place that was fabulous.

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This being a Japanese city, it must have a tower, since everyone knows Japanese cities all need towers. This was near a star-shaped former fortress that played a historical role in the formation of modern Japan at the beginning of the Meiji Era. This is my son, who was trying to take in all the Meiji Era history I was throwing at him.

The fort as seen from inside the tower. It was pretty amazing, as far as 150 year old Japanese forts go.

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This is Perori-kun, a cutified version of Admiral Perry, who visited Hakodate as one of the Japanese cities that were to be opened by treaty.

Hakodate is a really nice city if you like San Francisco. The two were clearly founded near each other and have the same kind of feel.

Awesome Hokkaido sunset is awesome. We were freezing up there while we waited for the sun to set.

This is the "Million Dollar View" as seen from the restaurant up on Hakodate-san. Incidentally, they could have charged an arm and a leg for the the food here, but it was very reasonable -- $13 for curry with pork cutlet, $5 for beer. Japan is amazing that way. The food was even outstanding.

The view, after dark. It was breathtaking, and there were hundreds of people there snapping photos.

The day we were to leave we woke up and took in the asa-ichi or morning fish market. I had tuna bowl and beer for breakfast and my son had crab bowl.

This is the Seikan Tunnel, and the Tappi Undersea Station. While I expected a normal station with little shops, the reality was slightly less fun, since the station is really there for evacuation in case of a fire or other disaster.

We walked and walked through these tunnels. It was interesting, and a little clausotropobic. I was sure I was being crushed by the weight of the air around me, but they said it was about the same pressure as on the surface.

The sign for Tappi Kaitei Station is quite famous. I gather densha otaku types make their way down here, since that's what I'd do if I were a train otaku.

Mm, want some Nazi Beer from Hokkaido? Actually this mark denotes Buddhist temples and has nothing to do with the Nazis. Just another one of those little curve balls that Japan throws at you.

Last picture. This was me and my son, and two girls who happened to ask us to take their picture at the top of Mt. Hakodate. We were like, what are the chances of the two girls we met on this mountain taking the Tappi tour with us, hundreds of miles away? Japan and coincidences go hand-in-hand for some reason. Like me learning Japanese from the Touch baseball manga, then happening to come to live in the city Adachi Mitsuru was born in, and marry a woman from here who shares the artist's fricking birthday.

Well that's all -- hope you enjoyed the pictures!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Our Hokkaido Adventure, Continued

My son and I are safely back home after our great adventure in northern Japan. On Saturday we did more sightseeing, of course visiting Mt. Hakodate to take in the famous night view and hitting the fish market the next morning. Then it was time to head for home, so we crossed back to Aomori using the Seikan Tunnel, taking a special train that stopped at the Tappi Undersea Station so we could take a tour of the only train station located 140 meters below sea level. Completed in 1988, the Seikan Tunnel is the longest and deepest in the world, spanning 53 km (33 miles) from end to end. The tunnel was built in response to a lack of capacity at the ferry docks that shuttled people and vehicles between the two islands, along with a series of terrible ferry accidents that claimed the lives of 1430 passengers in a single year. The tunnel was a very difficult dream to realize: it employed 1.4 million people and cost $7 billion, including 34 lives due to various accidents during construction.

Passing through the tunnel, we got to see the Shinkansen track they were laying which will eventually allow people to travel by speedy bullet train from Tokyo to Hokkaido. While I love riding these comfortable trains and appreciate that they've become an international symbol of Japan to the world, I wasn't sure how to feel about the country's eventual plan to bring its iconic high-speed trains all the way to Sapporo. Japan is a country positively addicted to construction, and while its engineering is probably the best in the world -- something I could really appreciate, walking through concrete tunnels hewn out of the ocean floor -- there's a time when not building something might be a good idea, too. Like when you've got a falling population, as Japan does, and when you have popular alternatives to rail, like the perfectly good network of domestic airlines. Already 90% of travelers heading from Tokyo to northern Japan opt to travel by air, since a 4-6 hour train journey just isn't convenient or most people, and I doubt this trend will change in the near future. I'd like to see Japan acknowledge that it's no longer a scrappy economic powerhouse and start making good decisions about the country's future based on a realistic world-view.

The night view from Hakodate is beautiful to behold.

Japan Election: My View

The Japanese election is over, and as expected, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a significant victory over the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that ruled the country almost continuously since 1955. Japanese voters appear to have lost patience with the LDP and Prime Minister Aso, who managed to oversee a staggering 15% annualized drop in GDP during his tenure -- oops! There were several reasons for the DPJ's landslide. First, they had a more organized game plan, spelling out their promises to voters in their now-famous "Manifesto" (clearly modeled on the old Contract with America). Another factor was the poor relationship Prime Minister Aso had with the media, being openly combatative with them at times, which affected the coverage his party received, especially from certain news channels. And as has been pointed out on political talk shows here, another factor in the change of parties was what's known as migi ni narae, (migi ni nah-rah-eh), an old army command that literally means "copy the person on your right!" Translatable as "me, too-ism," the word describes the tendency for Japanese to suddenly decide to move as a group towards a certain goal when they perceive that others are headed that way, too. The DPJ has made certain specific promises to voters, including monthly payments of $280 per child to families with kids while ending deductions for spouses (to encourage women to get into the workforce), and making all the freeways free -- of course all without any discussion of how the revenue for these programs will be generated. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

After a decisive election win, Japan's next Prime Minister will be Mr. Hatoyama.