Friday, November 06, 2009

Fun Things to do in Tokyo

I often get mail from people planning a trip to Tokyo, asking me to recommend some sightseeing spots. While there is a ton of fun stuff to see in and around Tokyo, the reality is that the Kansai Region is the better place to visit, with fabulous destinations like Kyoto and Nara and a thousand more years of history than the Kanto area. If you are Tokyo-bound, though, I'll do my best to offer some suggestions. Of course Akihabara is fun to visit, but if you want to really drink in the totality of otaku culture, try to be there on a Sunday after payday (which is the 25th of the month), when everyone is power-shopping and giddy with excess energy. If you like 8-bit gaming culture, hit a store called Super Potato, which has more classic console game stuff than you can shake a stick at. If you drink, make sure to go pub-crawling in Shinjuku's east side near Kabuki-cho, the only place in Japan that can be considered dangerous (so use good judgment). If you need to get across the bay to Odaiba for any reason, go out of your way to ride Himiko, the "water bus" designed by Space Battleship Yamato creator Leiji Matsumoto. Another fun water-related experience you might try is an evening cruise on a yakata-bune, essentially an old-style Japanese izakaya restaurant-bar on a boat that cruises around Tokyo bay while you eat and drink. Of course one spot you must visit if coming to Tokyo is the famous Hachiko statue in Shibuya, erected by local residents to honor the dog who waited faithfully for his master to return, even after the man died. Incidentally, we've posted a new T-shirt that's a tribute to Faithful Dog Hachiko -- check it out now.

The Himiko looks like it jumped out of a Leiji Matsumoto anime;


Make sure to visit the "Japanese Soul Dog" Hachiko while in Tokyo, too.

More Funny English in Japan

You've been in Japan too long when you see a sign for a "mansion gallery" and know immediately that it's a building built to allow prospective buyers of high-rise condominiums (called "mansions" here) to see what the insides are like before making a purchase. Like every country, the Japanese take words and change them to fit their needs, so that sometimes a native speaker might not know what the original meaning was. One interesting use the Japanese have come up with for the letter "W" is to represent the concept of "double," and advertisers might put a "W" in their product's name to imply that it's twice as effective as the leading brand. With the arrival of the Internet the letter "W" has taken on a new meaning, indicating laughter, since the word for "to laugh" in Japanese is warau but that's too hard to type quickly. Some other versions of words you hear quite frequently in Japan include "morning call" (what a wake-up call is here), "health meter" (what they call a scale to measure your weight) and "freeter" (someone who works part-time jobs but isn't interested in a career).

This Japanese beer is apparenly "Dy-no-mite!" www (and if you get that joke, my hat is off to you)

Gundam is to Star Trek as Macross is to Star Wars

People who study marketing know that competitions often come down to two companies, like Coke and Pepsi for carbonated sugar water or Mac and Windows for consumer operating systems. And for old school anime fans like me, I think Gundam and Macross fill a similar duality. Gundam is the "Star Trek" of the anime world, the groundbreaking franchise without which nothing after could have come, which tells a reasonably realistic story about mankind colonizing space, developing mecha suits called mobile suits and evolving into Newtypes. Macross is the series that throws realism out the window, instead telling a more emotional story with impossible transforming mecha and interstellar wars whose outcomes are invariably determined by a song. Ever since my son was small, we've had fun being Gundam fans together, watching the various series and doing father-and-son stuff like building model kits. When he borrowed my copy of the Macross Ultimate Frontier for the PSP, he played through all the levels then asked to see the show, so now we're having fun viewing the major Macross series together starting with Macross Frontier. And I've borrowed his copy of Gundam Battle Universe, a fabulous game made by the same staff in which you play through every battle from the One Year War to Char's Counterattack. Anime has really brought us together.

About the best live-action Macross we'll ever see, from a pachinko commercial.

Japan Takes Lucky Cat Seriously

J-List carries a huge selection of fun Lucky Cat products, called maneki neko or "inviting cat" in Japanese. He "invites" good luck into your home or business and is a wonderful image of Japan. Some products that are popular with our customers including the basic Lucky Cat coin bank, the awesome Lucky Cat Tea Cups we stock, fun Lucky Cat straps you can attach to your phone, and today, a Christmas Lucky Cat display we're posting. A lot of people talk about Lucky Cat, but J-List is doing something about it!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Japan and Bilingualism

My daughter invited a friend from her school over last weekend, and I got pressed into service as driver. ("Whatever you do, don't say any of your bad dajare puns around her," my daughter pleaded beforehand.) When we arrived at the station to pick her friend up, I made sure to speak only English to my daughter, since I know how Japanese view anyone who is pera pera (fluent) in a foreign language with awe. Sure enough, her friend's eyes got wide at the site of my daughter speaking English casually, which made me happy as a father. The Japanese know they're not the best when it comes to learning foreign languages, and anyone who can speak other languages is quite kakko ii (cool). When soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata went to Rome to play professionally, Japanese fans were stunned by video of him speaking Italian fluently, and his popularity soared. (You could probably calculate in money terms what his learning Italian was worth to him, since many licensing deals followed worth millions.) Another star to receive a boost from his linguistic ability is Okinawan-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, fluent in Mandarin as well as English, and whenever he's in a movie speaking either language, his fans go wild.

When Nakata spoke Italian on camera, his fans squealed with glee.

Japan's Paper Doors

Japanese homes are different from homes in the West. For example, there's a low area by the front door called a genkan where you remove your shoes before entering, a Buddhist Altar for letting family members who have passed away that they're not forgotten, and those dreamy tatami mats that I love sitting on, although they're honestly not the best thing for people with dust allergies. Another unique feature of Japanese homes: shoji, the famous paper doors which are used to separate rooms. The doors slide sideways on wooden rails, so they don't take up any space in cramped houses, and they bring a welcome Japanese touch to any room. Shoji have a tendency to turn yellow when they get old, so every few years you should replace the paper. Tearing the paper off the doors is just about the funniest thing in the world, and when my kids were small we'd make quite a game of it, punching through the paper and ripping it all off. The shoji paper market is quite large, with many different companies competing to sell you the best shoji paper. Variations include paper that's hard to tear thanks to cotton fibers inside, and shoji you can hang by just running a hot iron over the paper.

Shoji doors maybe be beautiful, but they're a challenge to maintain.

Rose Essence Gum, And Other Good Thigns

J-List stocks lots of fun products from Japan, and one of our favorites is Fuwarinka, an advanced kind of chewing gum developed by Kanebo (yes, that Kanebo) that contains rose essence, which is supposed to actually make your body smell rosy from the inside out. A similar product is Otoko Kaoru, special aromatic gum designed for men who want to smell nicer. Japan's recent "rose boom" extended into a surprising area: Kit Kat chocolates, and you can enjoy delicious aromatic chocolate cookies, at least until our stock runs out. Finally, something I positively love in the winter are the BUB fizzing bath tablets, which are a super way to take away the day's stress using "aroma therapy" (as the Japanese call it).

Anime 2.0: You Can (Not) Avoid Product Placement

An interesting thing has happened to anime over the past few years: it's become quite common to see well-known products being plugged on-screen. Of course, animators have always had fun with "unofficial" versions of famous brands, like "Pochy" and "Prech" in Please Teacher/Please Twins or the missile that explodes while flashing a Budweiser logo for a split-second in the Macross 1984 movie. Recently, though, the relationship between advertisers and animators has been changing as studios adjust to the realities of the 21st century. Some anime series now have famous product tie-ins built into them, like the running Pizza Hut gags and cross-promotions in Code Geass and A Certain Scientific Railgun, or the Katsuhiro Otome sci-fi series Freedom, which is loaded with humorous Cup Noodle imagery. In the new Evangelion movies, the characters shop at the Lawson convenience store, drink Yebisu beer and UCC Coffee and munch on Doritos. Tying certain products to anime certainly seems to be an effective strategy, judging from the sales of Grave of the Fireflies Sakuma Drops, traditional Kompeito candy and Totoro Milk Caramels at J-List, and clearly people like the idea of eating snacks that Hayao Miyazaki's pencil has animated. But is the recent increase in anime product placement crossing a line that should remain uncrossed? Ask me later, I've got a major craving for Pizza Hut right now.

Once again, I am giving myself major hunger pangs by blogging about food...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Learning, The Brain and Ai Yori Aoshi

I write a lot about language because I find it interesting on several levels, and I really can't think of a better way to get to know your own brain than to become bilingual. Take the act of learning a new word or phrase: it's actually a physical connection that takes place inside your brain as a chemical bond is formed between synapses. For example, if I tell you about the Ai Yori Aoshi game that we've got on sale this month, you might have one of several reactions. If you know about the (excellent) manga and anime series already, you might click over to check out the game, which is just $8.95 this month. But if the (admittedly difficult) Japanese title is unknown to you, your brain might sieze up a little as it tries to parse these strange foreign words. By reading the title, trying to recall it or linking it to other bits of knowledge, eventually a synaptic bridge will be built and you'll "know" the name. I remember riding the train into Akihabara for the first time back in 1991 and trying to memorize the name, which was new to me then. In order to get my brain to remember the name, I had to cross-reference it in several ways, looking up the kanji name and even imagining an autumn field of leaves (which is what Akihabara means). I imagined I could feel the synapses slowy reaching out to one another as the word clicked into place in my head.

Learning a phrase like Ai Yori Aoshi, your brain undergoes a physical change.

Have You Put On Some Weight?

Have you gained some weight? If you're a big person and come to Japan, be prepared to hear light-hearted comments about your weight, especially if you put on some weight. Although it's usually taboo to make mention of a person's girth in the U.S., in Japan it's quite common to start a conversation with a friend by asking him if he's gained weight recently. It's not fun, but you get used to it quickly enough, and the Japanese mean no harm in it -- it's just a kind of small talk, like talking about the weather. (I've also been asked, "Are you a professional wrestler?")

Labor Harmony in Japan

If you need an email answered in French from J-List, you'll have to wait another day: Thomas, our employee from France, was late getting back to Japan because a rail strike in Paris made it impossible to get to the airport in time for his flight. This is another difference between Japan and the West: for the most part, there's harmony between labor and management, and it's rare that average citizens feel inconvenience from or even notice labor disputes. There are some reasons for this balance, which may seem odd from the outside. First, both labor unions and management are likely better at reaching agreement on the issues they face, finding a consensus before disagreements get serious. If there's a Golden Rule to Japanese society it's not to cause meiwaku (inconvenience) to others, and I'm sure all parties would work extra hard to avoid being seen in a negative light by the public at large. But more than anything, the "labor harmony" here seems to come down to the kokumin-sei of the Japanese, their "national personality" that dislikes confrontation. In the spring, there's an interesting custom called shunto or "spring wages battle" in which employees of larger companies put on those cool hachimaki headbands and stage a mini-strike over a few days, demanding higher wages or improvements in their working conditions. These events are more like performances than serious disputes, though, and everything is decided ahead of time to avoid inconveniencing anyone.

The "Spring Wage Battle" is an interesting aspect of Japan

Wacky Things from Japan (More)

At J-List, we love to carry a wide range of products, some of which might be very useful, like the beautifully engineered Kado-Keshi eraser that has 28 corners, so you can always erase your mistakes on paper efficiently. Or stress-relieving toys like the Mugen (Endless) series, which lets you fear the tactile joy of opening a box of Pocky, cracking open a beer, peeling a banana or removing an edamame from its pod, forever. Or you can get even more whimsical. Want to surprise the Japanese you see on campus? Put one of these Beginner's Mark signs on your car, which is something new drivers in Japan are required to do, just for the lulz. Or buy this official Hello Kitty toilet paper for someone who either really likes, or really hates, Kitty-chan. Browse all our Wacky Things from Japan products here, or check the top 50 wacky items here.