Friday, September 24, 2010

Green Mate, Restaurant Out of Time

The other day my son had a holiday from school, so I took him to one of our favorite restaurants in town for lunch. Called Green Mate, it's a restaurant that serves yoshoku (Western style food), although many of the items on the menu might be puzzling to you, like the Omurice, a dreamy omelette served over rice with a demi-glace on top. We like the restaurant because it's a place that hasn't been touched by time -- everything is exactly the same as when it opened back in the early 80s, with no disruption from the outside world. Even the prices at this restaurant feel like the 80s: although the good is good enough that we often have to line up to eat, all plates are under $10, essentially the same prices as during Japan's bubble economy days.
This is "Toruko," a course of Western foods. Looks very Western, doesn't it?

Japanese Castle Towns

As with Europe, Japan has had a long history which has left its mark on cities today. Most of Japan's cities started out as castle towns, built up around the castle of the local samurai lord during Japan's feudal period, which ended only 142 years ago. Virtually all the cities around J-List -- Gunma prefectural capital Maebashi, commercialized Takasaki with its sleek Bullet Train line, and our own Isesaki -- originated as castle towns, and have curvy, narrow, inconvenient roads to prove it. Most of the beautiful castles in Japan are long gone, some lost to floods or general disuse and others destroyed during World War II, and their ruins are usually transformed into parks or other open spaces where people can come have a picnic. It is nice to have a bit of history around you. When you visit the Suzuran department story in Takasaki, you drive along the moat that guarded Takasaki Castle for 413 years.
Most Japanese cities are former castle towns, like Takasaki.

Sitting "Yankee" Style

There are certain skills the Japanese people possess, which we poor gaijin usually lack. Like the ability to sit for hours on their knees in proper seiza (lit. "correct sitting") style without their legs falling asleep, communicate how to write a kanji character to someone by making strokes in the air, talk for five minutes without getting to the point, and sleep while standing up on a crowded train. Another mysterious skill the Japanese possess is the ability so squat comfortably with their feet flat on the ground, which is known as yankii-zuwari or "sitting yankee style." This odd name came about when delinquent young men started hanging out in the "America-mura" (America Village) area of Osaka back in the 1970s, and since they liked to squat in this way in groups, the nickname "yankee" became associated with this style of sitting. I've lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, but I can't manage to squat like that without falling over like a daruma doll (remember, to do it correctly the feet are supposed to be flat on the ground). The reason the Japanese are able to squat in this way for hours is that Japanese-style toilets lack seats to sit on, and children learn from a young age how to use the toilets, which makes them more flexible.

(For what it's worth, "yankee" is pronounced like "yahnkee" with a long vowel, not like we usually say it in English.) 
I can't get the hang of squatting "yankee" style like the Japanese.

We Love Japanese Snacks at J-List

J-List loves Japanese snacks, gum and drinks, and we stock hundreds, including fun anime-themed items like the UCC Coffee + Evangelion figures, the Akihabara canned anime bread, and snacks seen in Hayao Miyazaki's movies, like Konpeito candies, Sakuma Drops or Morinaga Milk Caramels. We also love FritoLay Japan's bold flavors of Doritos and Cheetos, and carry them all. Click here to browse all our Japanese snack offerings, or here to see the top 50 Japanese snacks this week!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Awesome Japanese Magazines from J-List

J-List specializes in awesome magazines from Japan, and our popular Revolving Magazine Subscriptions service -- which lets you get your favorite anime, manga, fashion and other magazines sent to you each month -- is extremely popular. One thing we love about Japan's magazines are the omake or free stuff you get, like the many posters found in each issue of Megami Magazine or NyanType, the awesome limited edition stuff in magazines like GeMaga or Dengeki Gs Festival, plus our lineup of Japanese fashion magazines with free stuff for you. But remember, these items sell out fast, so don't wait to get the items you want.

Kanji Structure is Not Difficult

Everyone knows that the Japanese use Chinese characters, or kanji, as part of their writing system, but since kanji are so different from anything we use in the West, they seem like random chicken scratches at times. Actually, they're laid out in a very standard and logical designed to make it easier to cross-reference characters in dictionaries. Many kanji have "radicals," parts of the character that give hints about the overall meaning. For example, the character for "to say" (which happens to look like a stack of books on a shelf) forms the left half of characters for "to read" "to speak" and "to translate." Similarly, kanji that have to do with water or the sea contain the radical that represents water, making it easier for you to link the concepts cognitively. So while kanji is hard for Westerners to learn to read, it's not nearly as impossible as seems at first. (Remember that J-List has tons of Japanese study supplies for you, in stock right now.)

Driving in Japan

Being back in Japan means getting accustomed to driving here again. Like the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, Japan drives on the left side of the road, a policy put into place in the Edo Period supposedly so that the swords of samurai riding or walking would not come into contact with the swords of oncoming samurai, which would be cause for an immediate battle between the two parties. Getting used to driving on the left isn't difficult at all -- I just go the same way as the other cars on the road, remembering to keep myself closer to the center of the road than someone sitting in the passenger seat would be. A bigger problem is avoiding the embarrassment of accidentally putting my windshield wipers on when I mean to make a turn (since the controls are reversed), or going to get into the car on the wrong side. Another big adjustment I have to make is taking a long time to get anywhere. In San Diego, it's not hard to put a hundred miles on the car while running a few errands, thanks to the speedy freeways, my hair whipping in the wind, but it's possible to drive for an hour in Japan yet only go a dozen kilometers.
Driving in Japan is different from in the U.S. (and slightly less fun).

China and Japan Diplomatic Crisis

China and Japan are in the middle of a diplomatic spat after a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel near some disputed islands, resulting in the arrest by Japan of the Chinese boat's captain and crew for trespassing. (The crew was released soon after.) Called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, the uninhabited rocks were claimed by Japan in 1895 and were administered by the U.S. during its 27-year occupation of Okinawa. Of course, the uninhabited islands themselves are not very important: it's the rich fish and possible oil resources that both sides want access to. The fight has impacted the relationship of China and Japan in unpleasant ways, causing the upcoming concert of Japanese boy-band SMAP in Shanghai to be halted. Predictably, there have been demonstrations against the "imperialist" Japanese in China, a time-honored tool of statecraft across Asia, but hopefully the issue will blow over soon.
As usual, rocks in the Pacific are causing political problems again.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bento Boxes @ J-List

J-List always stocks hundreds of awesome Japanese bento boxes for you, like the classic Hello Kitty traditional bento box, or one of my favorites from Hakoya, a round bento box with a miso soup bowl built into it. You can cook rice using the handy microwave rice cookers J-List stocks -- these are great for college students -- and if you're in need of bento ideas, we've got several outstanding bento books in stock. Click here to see the top 50 bento boxes, or here to view the most popular bento related accessories.

Learning Japanese in Kanji is Easy (Really)

One thing I like about learning a foreign language like Japanese is the way it helps you to learn how your own brain works. If you're like me, you might find that Japanese words are hard to memorize the first time you encounter them. Names can be especially hard -- back in college I had a male Japanese friend who was named Yoshinari, but to this day I'm not sure if it was Yoshinori or Yoshitsune or Yoshihide. It may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but one way to make Japanese names easier to remember is to learn them in kanji. When you know that the name of Fuyutsuki from Evangelion means "winter moon," memorizing that name only takes two "bytes" in your brain, rather than nine for the name if stored in the Roman alphabet. The more synaptic "hooks" you create, the easier it is to memorize new words and concepts, so it gets easier the more you learn. Whether you want to learn the basics of Japanese -- hiragana and katakana, and maybe some elementary kanji -- or are ready to start a more serious program of study, J-List always has great Japanese study aids in stock for you. Click here to view all our study products, or here to see the top 50 study-related items.
Fuyutsuki or 冬月, which is easier to remember?

The Dirty Pair Will Solve Any Problem For You

One of the more popular anime series from the 1980s was the Lovely Angels, I mean Dirty Pair, the story of two space-faring detectives whose catch-line is "we will solve any problem for you" (though this often involves the destruction of entire planets). A creation of animation producer Haruka Takachiho, who founded the legendary animation house Studio Nue, the sexy duo are loosely based on the 1970s-era professional wrestling team Beauty Pair. Like Speed Racer, Marine Boy, the Seven Cities of Gold, and Cowboy Bebop, Dirty Pair is a good example of an anime series that was more popular outside of Japan than in, and the creators were probably surprised that their works made a larger cultural splash around the world than in Japan itself. That's the thing about popular culture: it can't be controlled or directed, and you never know what form it will take. For many anime fans, Genshiken, the story of a university club dedicated to appreciating various forms of visual media including anime, manga and cosplay, has come to define what it is to be an otaku better than any other source, yet in Japan, where fans live that life every day,
the show never got that popular.
The Dirty Pair "will solve any problem for you™."

Pathetically Uncool Saitama

A few updates ago I mentioned Saitama, the Japanese prefecture that's been made semi-famous as the home of Crayon Shin-chan, as well as the Lucky Star girls. The prefecture borders Japan's capital city of Tokyo, but unlike Kanagawa to the south and Chiba to the East (the homes of Yokohama and Tokyo Disneyland, respectively), Saitama has a terrible reputation, being ranked 43 out of Japan's 47 prefectures on the "coolness" scale. In fact, the universal word for "uncool" in Japan -- dasai (pronounced dah-sah-ee) -- comes from the phrase dame na Saitama ("no good Saitama"), which always seemed a bit unfair to me. I've always thought that Saitama Prefecture was similar to the Orange County area of California, which lives in the shadow of Los Angeles, and can seem somewhat less exciting compared to the glitter of Hollywood. (A friend referred to life there as "living behind the Orange Curtain.") Like every Japanese prefecture, Saitama has an official mascot that the local government uses to promote various public safety and other programs, but this one -- a dorky pigeon named Kobaton -- is especially embarrassing. Maybe the prefecture's stupid reputation could be improved by getting a new official character?
Maybe Saitama's image problem comes from its stupid mascot?