Friday, March 05, 2010

The Loving Arms of NHK

"You've been in Japan too long when NHK warnings about landslides, heavy rains, and other disasters make you feel reassured that someone is benevolently watching over you." NHK is Japan's public broadcasting network, essentially a clone of the BBC, and aside from giving us cool things like Domo-kun they provide news, culture, and the best samurai dramas around. They're also at the center of Japan's rather extensive Emergency Warning System, which provides information on earthquakes and other natural disasters. After the tragic earthquake in Chile, there was fear that a large tsunami might strike Japan, and all day long NHK and the other TV stations displayed a large warning graphic telling people to avoid the sea. When the wave finally hit, it was just 30 cm high, which caused anger among Japan's otaku on 2ch who weren't happy about having their favorite anime series "marred" by a large map of Japan taking up half the screen. The television stations weren't the only ones well prepared for disasters. When I got in my car that day, my navi (er, computerized GPS thingey, whatever it's called in proper English) warned me, "An emergency situation has been declared. Please drive your car to a safe location immediately." I felt like I was in an SF story.

During times of trouble, NHK is a calm hand on your shoulder.

Dragon Dictation Mad Libs

Like many people, I have an iPhone, and I carry it with me everywhere, stroking it lovingly and calling it my precious in a guttural Gollum-like voice. The other day I downloaded a program called Dragon Dictation, which promises to transcribe spoken text by uploading it to its servers for quick processing. I have to say, the app works great, and I was able to get nearly 100% accuracy almost immediately. My wife asked me to let her try, but due to her Japanese accent, the results were, well, different. The text I'd used as a base was:

Cafe Verona. Rich, romantic and well-balanced, with the dark cocoa texture and roasted sweetness.

But despite her best efforts, pronouncing the words slowly and carefully, the program returned text like this:

LMAO my rates become not romantic and well-balanced come up with tobacco cool exterior and roasting meat.

Of course, the program wasn't designed to parse non-standard accents of English, and it does its job very passably with native speakers. I felt kind of sorry for my wife -- although she can use English without any problem when in the States, the program couldn't transcribe her words properly at all.

The Dragon Dictation system is great, unless you have a strong accent.

Stuff to See in Japan

I'm always happy to offer random advice about what to see when planning a trip to Japan. While the Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka) area is frankly the best place to go for quality sightseeing, there are some nice places to visit in the Kanto (Tokyo) region, too. One of my favorites is Nikko, pretty much the most beautiful complex of temples and Japanese gardens in Eastern Japan, where you can see where Ieyasu Tokugawa's ashes are interred as well as those "see no evil, speak no evil" monkeys. Another place I like to recommend to people is Tobu World Square, conveniently located near Nikko, which is a theme park filled with super detailed miniatures, all recreated at 25:1 scale. Walking through the park you see all the most famous buildings in the U.S., including the World Trade Center standing tall, then stroll past the Pyramids and the great cathedrals of Europe, see the Long Castle of 10,000 Leagues (as the Great Wall is called) and visit all the famous temples in Japan in miniature form. You can even see a replica of the Tokyo Sky Tree, the new broadcasting tower that will stand more than 630 meters when it's completed in 2012.

I'm a fan of Tobu World Square, an amusement park of realistic miniatures.

Sorry for Server Issues, Here's some Bento

First of all, many apologies for the off-and-on server problems we've been experiencing over the past couple of days. We're hard at work on a permanent fix, and believe the issues will be behind us soon. If the site ever does stop responding for you while you're using it, come back in a few minutes and it should be working again.

J-List carries a huge selection of bento boxes from Japan, for our customers who want to take part in the worldwide explosion of Japanese boxed lunch culture. A lot of the bento boxes we carry are a beautiful blend of traditional and modern Japanese themes, like the Blue Rabbit and Moon bento box, a top seller on the site right now. We also love the bento box offerings from Hakoya, since they really know how to capture the soul of Japan in their lunchboxes. We have more Hello Kitty bento boxes than you can shake a stick at -- heck, we've declared today to be the International Sanrio Bento Day for no particular reason -- and bento boxes that hold onigiri rice balls are another really cool item. Click here to see all our bento items, or here to check out the top 50 bento boxes on the site right now. We also have plenty of fun bento accessories, which you can see see here.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Common Euphemisms Used in Japan

As a general rule, Japan is very "about" -- an English word the Japanese use to mean subtle, vague or imprecise -- and a lot of information is not overtly stated. This can be a challenge to foreigners who aren't used to having conversations in which the subjects of sentences are silently assumed by all parties. The Japanese also make use of euphemisms to stand for concepts they don't want to talk about directly, like the famous word ecchi, the letter "H" said with a Japanese accent, which works as a general stand-in for anything sexual. If a guy thinks about girls too much, he is ecchi, and the most common way to refer to that particular human act is ecchi suru, lit. "to do H." (If you watch the Japanese version of CSI: Miami, Horatio's nickname of "H" is changed to "chief" for this reason.) Female menstruation is another subject that's never talked about directly, and the usual way to refer to the subject is seiri, which just means "biology." This word is so pervasive that I never learned the proper word in Japanese...until I discovered it by putting my foot in my mouth. I'd been talking with some friends about a brand of sake called Gekkei-kan but I mispronounced it, so that it came out gekkei, which just happened to be the Japanese word for "menstruation" (insert facepalm).

"That explains why Japanese tourists... *glasses* ...always look at me funny."

American Animation vs. Japan: Which Is Better?

The other day I came across a site asking in all seriousness which country's animation was better, the U.S. or Japan. I posted the question to my Twitter feed, and there was a spirited discussion about the benefits of each, with the general consensus that the two are so different that trying to compare them is useless. One thing I especially love about the animation from Japan is the huge range of creativity you find, like the closing credits of Sora no Otoshimono which shows a flock of girl's panties flying through the sky as if they were birds. (We even have a pair you can fly yourself.) Last week I watched a gorgeous series called Eve no Jikan, or the Time of Eve, about a future in which humans are served by advanced androids. But even robots want to feel like people, and there's a special coffee shop where humans and androids can interact without barriers. My favorite androids at Eve no Jikan are Rina and Koji, a couple who are always fawning over each other. Although they're both androids, each believes the other to be human, an idea which caused my head to explode.

So what do you think? Obviously you have to qualify the question -- are we comparing Pixar to Ghibli, CG based 3D animation to quality 2D? Or only 2D to 2D? I sometimes think that anime is fresher than, say, Disney animated films which closely follow an established pattern, but then I realize that Dragonball Z has its own pattern its following, too. Any thoughts?

"Are you enjoying the time of EVE?"

The Rolling Fields of Green Tea

If kimchee embodies the soul of Korea, then green tea serves the same role here. Green tea has been a part of Japan's culture ever since it was introduced from China in the 9th century A.D., and like many other words that represent especially important concepts to the Japanese, the honorific prefix o is bestowed on it (o-cha). There are, of course, more types of "green" tea than encompassed by the English word, including ryoku-cha for the traditional light green drink that's most familiar to everyone, the darker matcha made from tea powder, plus other varieties such as roasted hoji-cha or genmai-cha with toasted rice in it. One thing I love about Japan are green tea vending machines which dispense green tea for free, often found at hot springs or "parking areas" (rest stops) along the freeway. Green tea is very healthy, and studies suggest it can improve cognitive function, reduce cavities and keep more serious diseases away, and rightly or wrongly, the Japanese attribute much of their famous longevity to the drink. Incidentally, J-List has some awesome green tea related products for you, if you want to check them out.

A beautiful image of green tea groves in Shizuoka, with Mt. Fuji in the background.

Green Tea Goodness from J-List

J-List always strives to bring a slice of Japan to you, wherever you are in the world. The most popular flavor of Kit Kat on our site right now is the upcoming Sakura Matcha Kit Kat, which combines two of our favorite tastes in one awesome package. You can preorder it here, and may we remind everyone that chocolate products will be removed next month as things start to warm up in Japan. Other fun foods that feature green tea are the Matcha Food Drops or that wacky Green Tea Bread in a Can from Akihabara -- oh Japan, never stop being so wacky. Finally, if you want to transform your body into a giant bottle of green tea, we've got a T-shirt for that.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Raising Kids and Beetles in Japan

Being a father to kids in Japan can be a unique experience. For example, boys around a certain age will usually decide they love trains, especially the fast shinkansen, and I had a great time with my son as we learned the names of every train in Japan and even made a special trip to Nagoya on the Nozomi 700, the fastest bullet train. A few years later Japanese boys go through a phase where all they want to do is catch large beetles to keep as pets, and my wife and I spent more than a few hours wandering through woods at night trying to help my son snag a kabutomushi, or a rhinoceros beetle. When I saw the new GummiX Gummi Bug Making System, which you make realistic-looking bugs and other crawlies using included gelatin powder and common drinks like cola or ramune soda, I had to applaud the company for its great idea. The bug-shaped molds are quite versatile and you can use them with the popular "Mousse-chan paper clay" toys we carry or even mold chocolate using them.

Toyota: The View from Japan

The Toyota Motor Company has been in the news a lot lately over quality issues with its vehicles. Akio Toyoda, grandson of company's founder, appeared before the U.S. Congress to personally apologize for the problems with his company's vehicles and take full responsibility for making things right. It was a rare thing to see a Japanese corporate leader in such a public way -- by and large, shacho (company presidents) here are all but invisible, and flamboyant leaders like Apple's Steve Jobs or Nissan's Carlos Ghosn are not very common. The Japanese media has been covering reactions of the U.S. government and media closely, watching to see to what extent some of the statements and posturing is driven by nationalism and politics. The Japanese are very sensitive to the specter of "Japan bashing" left over from the 1980s, and want to avoid any movement in that direction. In case you're curious, the name Toyota was chosen for the company Keiichi Toyoda founded in 1937 because it has a "lucky" number of strokes when written in katakana.

Toyota is having a tough time with some quality issues, but Prius-tan want to help.

J-List Product Focus: Food Drops and Furikake

J-List loves to find products from Japan that surprise and delight our customers. One of the most popular products we've carried recently are the Japanese Food Drops, traditional tastes in candy form that are similar to the classic Sakuma Drops candies seen in Ghibli's Grave of the Fireflies movie. There are many fun tastes to sample, like Tonkotsu Ramen Drops from Kumamoto, Kyushu or exotic So-Ki Noodles from Okinawa, and even awesome Beer Drops from Sapporo, plus other fun varieties of sake. The wackiness extends even further, like Cherry Boy Drops from Yamagata (based on a kind of cherry sold there), or Moe Drops from Akihabara. The candies are always fun to eat, but because the tins are so beautiful and can be kept pristine for years, they're also great to collect. Don't forget to try the newest product line, Japanese Food Furikake, which is eaten sprinkled over rice or carried in your bento box -- children and gaijin especially love it.

Of Earthquakes and Magical Kingdoms Under the Sea

A week or so ago, a bizarre-looking deep-sea fish called Ryugu-no-Tsukai, which Wikipedia tells me is "oarfish" in English, started coming up from the bottom of the sea in large numbers. This was a very strange thing to happen, and there was a lot of discussion about how an earthquake might be about to occur somewhere in the world. Now that the tragic magnitude 8.8 quake in Chile has happened (plus a smaller M6.9 one off the coast of Okinawa), a lot of people here are nodding their heads about the wisdom of the sea. Incidentally, the Japanese name of the fish is quite cool, meaning "Servant of Ryugu," and it's mentioned in Urashima Taro, an ancient Japanese tale of a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is rewarded by being taken to the magical undersea Dragon Kingdom, where he's waited on by beautiful sea-maidens for three days. When he returns home, he finds that 700 years have passed. The story shows up in many poplar anime series, from Dragonball Z to Love Hina and more, and we even have an really awesome dating-sim game built around the premise.

Tthe story of Urashima Taro is one of Japan's most famous.