Friday, August 17, 2012

Ghost Town Tokyo and Ekiben

Yesterday I took a trip to Tokyo to take advantage of Obon, when half the city leaves for their home prefectures to be with family, turning Japan's capital into a ghost town for four days. It was fun, walking around the usually-bustling Shinjuku and Shibuya with very few people around me, and my wife and I had a pleasant time. I made a point of leaving Tokyo right around lunchtime so I could eat one of my favorite things in the world: ekiben, the famous "train station bento" that you buy at train stations to eat on a train. The world of train station bento lunches is great -- each station makes it own unique type which represents what that part of Japan is known for. Visit Hokkaido and you'll be able to buy ika-meshi bento, which is flavored rice cooked inside a delicious squid, while no trip to Toyama is complete without eating masu-no-sushi, a delicious trout sushi pressed into a round wooden frame and eaten like a pizza. Our prefecture is famous for Daruma dolls, so naturally Takasaki Station sells ekiben in a special daruma-shaped bento box that's quite delicious.

Tokyo during Obon is empty, it's actually pleasant to be there.

Buddhism in Japan: Bring Home the Bacon

Last time I talked about Obon, the Japanese Buddhist holiday in which families welcome the souls of departed family members home for a visit. Buddhism in Japan can be quite a perplexing subject, especially if you're unfamiliar with the religion. Officially a branch of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, imported into Japan through the Korean Peninsula in 552 A.D., Japanese Buddhism developed many unique features, stressing the importance of one's ancestors while paying less attention to ideas about karma or reincarnation found in some other Buddhist traditions. While many may have the image of Buddhist priests leading ascetic lives, fasting as they seek satori (enlightenment), Japanese Buddhism is more about providing a calming social framework for people, especially when family members pass away...and driving really bodacious Mercedes-Benz cars. Yes, for some reason Buddhist monks are ridiculously wealthy, receiving a huge amount of money for their services yet paying no taxes. They get to drink, too: there's a custom at Japanese funerals called bozu-okuri, meaning "driving the priest home after the wake because he's too drunk to drive." Whenever Japan goes into a recession, Buddhist priests get embarrassed about their wealth and hide their luxury cars, driving more modest economy cars in public. There's a fun scene in episode 2 of Tari Tari when the father of one of the characters, a Buddhist priest, is seen rapidly counting his money in front of a computer spreadsheet.

Japanese Buddhism can be a confusing thing.

Cool Traditional Products from Japan

J-List is much more than an anime shop, and we go out of our way to sell hundreds of fun traditional items that make you think you're in a Kyoto souvenir shop. From onsen bath powder to those wicker pillows that are so wonderful for napping with in the summer to a sakura tree that blooms right on your desk and many interesting Buddhist products, we've got a lot of fun items to browse. Click to see the top traditional Japan items here.

The Japanese Love Mayonnaise

I've learned a few things about the Japanese during my time here. They generally think that every foreigner is tall and blonde even if we're 5'5" with dark hair. Japanese companies love to individually wrap things, and there are usually at least three layers of meticulously designed wrapping between you and that cookie you'd like to eat. They love concrete, and think nothing of creating parks where pristine concrete comes right up to where the trees are...or of covering random mountainsides "just in case" there might be a landslide someday. They're also the biggest fans of mayonnaise in the world, consuming 1.8 kg (4 lbs) of the stuff per person per year. Japanese put mayo on salads, sushi, on traditional foods like takoyaki or okonomiyaki...and one of the most popular kinds of pizza is corn and mayonnaise (I swear I am not making this up). The Japanese word for someone who really loves mayonnaise is mayoler, and it's not uncommon for characters to have an unnatural love of the stuff as a personality quirk in anime, like Kotetsu from Tiger and Bunny or Tsukasa from Lucky Star. As in Europe, the Japanese often eat French fries with mayonnaise, or both ketchup and mayonnaise together, dipped randomly. If you're curious about Japanese mayonnaise, naturally we have some on the site for you.

The Japanese are great lovers of mayonnaise.

J-List is in Las Vegas!

Just a reminder: J-List is in Las Vegas August 17-19 for AniMegaCon, a new convention we think has a lot of potential. In addition to cool Japanese products from J-List, you can find lots of guests, an amazing maid cafe plus a free hentai video room sponsored by us. Hope to see you at the show!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Japanese Territorial Issues, and a Cat

There's an interesting Japanese news-and-discussion program on Saturdays called Yasuhiro Tase's Weekly News Report, where the important news stories of the day are discussed by some very smart commentators. Because the topics covered in the show are quite heavy and intellectual, they "soften" things in a uniquely Japanese way: by keeping a cat on the set and allowing the camera to follow what the cat is doing while various subjects are being debated. Last week was an interesting topic, one that concerns many Japanese: the ongoing territorial disputes with Russia over the four Kuril islands north of Hokkaido; with China and Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands; and with South Korea over two useless rocks called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, which have become a major thorn in Japanese-Korean relations. Japanese are concerned that, as their status as an economic superpower wanes, their sovereign territory will be taken away by their more confrontational neighbors, and there'll be little Japan's weak government can do to stop it. (For example, a Chinese government official recently called on Japan to return Okinawa to its "proper" Chinese ownership.)
The territorial dispute with Korea came to a head when President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea made the first-ever visit by a Korean President to the islands on Friday, which set off a flurry of protests from Japan. That the trip just happened to come in the months before the Korean national elections was no coincidence: Korea and China are happy to make use of disputes with Japan to whip their voters into a ferver and deflect criticism of their own domestic policies. The rocks in question were first mapped by the French whaling ship Liancourt in 1849 (their international name is the Liancourt Rocks) and were officially claimed as Japanese territory in 1905, but when World War II ended the status of the rocks was not specifically decided by treaty, which has led to the current dispute (though the U.S. was clearly on the side of Japan during the Occupation, regarding the islands). On the Japan side of the argument, there are multiple European maps from the late 1800s which show the rocks as belonging to Japan (indicating that the world powers of the era considered the islands to be Japanese), a passage in a 1714 historical document in Korea that expressed concern that "Japanese territory" (the Liancourt Rocks) being so close to Korea's, and the fact that Korea doesn't seem to have ever named the islands in antiquity or mapped them clearly. On the Korean of the argument, there are documents that show that the government of Japan considered the islands as belonging to Korea from the 1870s, and the Korean government did make an official survey of the islands in 1900, five years before Japan's official annexation. The bottom line is that neither side has an iron-clad claim, and each only seemed to start caring about the islands when the other party showed interest, making the whole thing rather like two children fighting over a toy. The reality is that South Korea has had possession of the islands for 70+ years, and has made such a fuss about them that Japan will likely never get them back.

A hard-hitting news program starring a cat; Dunkin Donuts Korea knows what side their bread is buttered on.

Happy Obon from J-List

We're right in the middle of Obon (pronounced "oh, bone"), an important four-day Buddhist holiday during which Japanese return to their parents' homes and hold ceremonies for family members who have died, visiting the family grave to wash it lovingly and leave flowers and make sure the deceased know they haven't been forgotten. While I don't know much about Buddhism itself -- which incidentally is no different from most Japanese people, who usually don't take an interest in the subject until later in their lives -- I know the Japanese really care about their ancestors, starting with parents and grandparents, since (as my wife has pointed out to me) without them you wouldn't be here, would you? Obon is a great time for local festivals, and most neighborhoods throw a fun celebration with free food and an open space for doing the traditional dance called bon-odori (pronounced "bone-odor-ey") while wearing a summer yukata. Obon is similar to Thanksgiving in the U.S. in that many people travel home for the long holiday, and if you get caught in the traffic jams going in or out of Tokyo during the peak travel times, you'll be there a while.

Obon in Japan is an important cultural event.

Learn Japanese with J-List!

J-List genuinely wants to help people around the world learn about Japan through its wonderful language, and we offer great study products from flashcards to kanji posters to textbooks and more. One time-honored way to motivate yourself to study is to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test every December. The test comes in five levels, from N5 (the easiest, testing kana and basic kanji) to N1 (the hardest, required to attend a Japanese university), with the idea being that you can try to raise your level in between each test. This year the test will be held on December 2, so there are only 110 days of studying left! Click here to see our JLPT study materials and here to see all Japanese study products, as ranked by our customers.