Monday, November 09, 2009

Webster comes to Japan: the City Connection

I ran across a rather odd but interesting tidbit the other day - do you remember that show Webster with Emmanuel Lewis (the perpetual kid) from back in the 80's? No? Well if you're too young for that then first off thanks for making me feel old, but not to fret. That's what South Park is for! He's at the end as the spokesman for Webster's Dictionary. South Park, bridging generational gaps for 13 years and going (ok, maybe not quite).

So anyway, what does Emmanuel Lewis have to do with Japan? Well, I just found out that he, like many a celebrity from the 80's, made a commercial in Japan in 1981 for Clarion stereo equipment. What's even weirder (cooler??) is that he sang the song for the commercial, which went on to peak at #2 on the Japanese Orikon music charts! How's that for bizarre? At the time in Japan, he was known either as Emmanuel-kun or エマニエル坊や (坊や = little kid).

The name of the song was City Connection, and it goes a little something like this:

Ring ring, 電話が ringing tonight
(ring ring, the phone's ringing tonight)
Dance dance, あの娘(こ)と dancing tonight
(dance dance, dancing with that girl tonight)
City connection, love telephone
Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do!

Baby baby baby baby 命掛け (baby baby, my life's on the line)
Papa, mama 僕らを止めないで (papa, mama, please don't stop us)
あの娘(こ)が死ぬほど好きなんだ (I love her more than anything)
今夜は君を離さない (I won't let go of you tonight)



Warning: this song is catchy and may get stuck in your head to the point where you find yourself inadvertently bobbing your head to it hours afterwards! And here's the commercial:

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Halloween in Japan

Well Halloween is now over, and what a wondrous festivity it was this year for me and mine. I sorted out my costume quite a while back, actually, but didn't really sort out where we were going until much later- Halloween afternoon to be precise.

What was I, you ask? Well let's see how well you pay attention:

I've actually written about this guy before:

He is none other than Hokkaido's mirthful ball of excited algae, Marimokkori! Since I brought it up last year, however, I have noticed that the mokkori madness has caught like wildfire all across the nation with local flavors galore. The first of these fellows I ran across was one from Nikko, which is quite well known for its monkeys... which is in turn why I just had to go there. Next I noticed it up in Sendai, where they had a Date Masamune version which I dubbed Date mokkori. Then this past month when I was down in Ishigaki I saw what seems to be the next level of mokkorism. They have taken the traditional Okinawan Shiisa and mokkorified it to bring you: Shiisa mokkori. Old men shiver and look away as babies run in fear from... Shiisa mokkori.

...ok yeah, they tried to make it as cute as they could, but in the end it's still a lion-dragon thingie with a boner.

So anyway, that was Halloween - more pics, as always, can be found at my flickr page. Now that Halloween is over, of course, this can mean only one thing in Japan: it's Christmas season. Back home there's that nice buffer of Thanksgiving between the two commercial juggernauts that are Halloween and Christmas, but over here we are not afforded such a privilege and are thus subjected to pretty much straight commercialism from last month all the way through Valentine's Day, and probably beyond if I think about it.

Luckily for me, I'm too busy with work to focus on it too much... thank God.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Whales, dolphins.... and tuna!?

Hi there, me again. So I don't really keep up with South Park all that much anymore, but every now and then I watch when they cover an issue that I enjoy - something about hearing them ridicule both sides of the argument and show that everyone is if not full of shit, at least partially containing shit, or shit-like, substance in some capacity. This week's episode was more of the same, covering Sea Shepherd and 98% of the world's lack to comprehend why Japan wants to hunt whales and dolphins. Yes that's right, there's also dolphin hunting, but from my understanding it's mostly only in a small village called Taiji in Wakayama-ken in a festival that's been going on for quite a while.... and Sea World (watch the new South Park episode here).


Now I'm not going to bother giving my entire opinion on the whole whale hunting thing again, but let's just say that I've had whale meat before and feel that as long as their numbers are kept sustainable, hunt away. I will say that to me this is a different issue than with dolphin hunting, as dolphins are in no way anywhere near being extinct or endangered, so the issue is more one of intelligence and, well let's be honest, cuteness. I'm sure there have been studies to back this up somewhere, but beautiful people have a marked advantage in life, and the dolphin case to me is an extension of this into the animal world. Pigs are really intelligent creatures, and yet we keep dumb chihuahuas as pets and stick them in stupid Hollywood movies while we have 101 tasty ways to get a pig onto your plate and in your belly.


Ok, so now I've given you the background on the whales and dolphins - where does the tuna come in, you say? Well look no further than today's headlines to find that an organization in Europe is in agreement with significant reductions in fishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, of which stocks are said to be as low as 15% of their original numbers. This is in response to the EU talks of enacting a ban on tuna fishing within its waters to keep the species going. There was also a ban on fishing of certain other species of tuna in the Atlantic for 2 months of last year. As you may or may not know, Japan is the world's largest consumer of tuna, which is a popular staple for sashimi and sushi. Sushi has gained in popularity worldwide in recent years, but that's nothing... do you know how much tuna Japan consumes? Really? They fish more than 300,000 metric tons every year, and yet still have the rest of the world bringing their tuna to Tsukiji market to sell more of top of that. That's 300,000 METRIC TONS, which means that if you had 30,000 dump trucks that could carry 10 tons of tuna each... then no one else would be able to drive anywhere because that's a lot of frickin' tuna.

So, now to bring this all together. Here we have Japan, which has shown that they really like eating fish and other bounties of the sea, even more than they care about what the rest of the world thinks of their eating habits. On the other hand we have a species of fish that is thought to be all too common wind up being endangered because one country eats 1,000 international space stations worth of it on an annual basis. Will Japan be willing to curtail its hunting to let numbers get back into a sustainable figure, and what will this mean for sushi lovers worldwide? Who will think of the tuna!?

Well the answer is that Japan has already agreed to cut back its tuna fishing for a whole 2 months over a 2 year period, so I'm guessing this is one fish they're willing to play ball on. This latest news may mean even more cuts than the measly 5% cutback the Japanese fishers have agreed to thus far. They agreed that tuna is yummy, and thus it would be ashamed to deprive the world of it for a lifetime by stuffing our faces with it now. Looking at the way things are going though, I'm guessing you're going to see less tuna now, and possibly even higher prices for a while if things get too bad. So you heard it here- be responsible next time you do sushi, order the anago.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Return of the Hachiroku! Toyota's small-body FR Sports Car, the FT-86 Concept

Let it be known to those that were not aware - I am a total car nerd. And as a total car nerd who lives in Tokyo and can read Japanese, I've been really excited lately to hear that there are a few companies that are bucking the current trend of making bland, economical cars and going balls out - specifically, Toyota and Subaru. I've been busy with work lately and unfortunately haven't been able to make it to this year's Tokyo Motor Show to see this car in person, but rest assured I shall make it before next Wednesday when the show closes. I have, however, been doing some reading - namely this article over at nikkei trendy and the last couple issues of Best Car, a major Japanese car mag that's highlighted the Toyota-Subaru combined effort with some quality information.

Now here I'll focus mainly on what I've heard about the Toyota version, which was confirmed at the TMS to be slated for Fall 2011 sale worldwide: in Japan (development name: 086A), North America (087A) and Europe (088A). The basic idea? A throwback to the old AE86 (the hachi-roku) - a lightweight, relatively inexpensive rear-wheel drive car that's fun to toss around turns. Toyota execs and designers alike are on record as saying that they are more focused on appealing to those who remember the original hachi-roku than making a car for young drivers, and are pricing it "such that the average working man can afford one." And how close have they come to this goal? Well, here's what they've got thus far:

The dimensions are a length of 4160mm (162.5 in.), width of 1760mm (68.75 in.) and height of 1260mm (49.2 in.) making it a full 20mm shorter than the original 86, but its wheelbase of 2570mm (100.4 in.) is a full 170mm more than the original's 2400mm. Also, the extra 135mm of width should make it quite a bit more stable as well. Curb weight will be around 1200kg (2640 lbs.). Some of the top brass are saying they want to make it the same length as the original, so don't be surprised if the production model is 4180mm. The body seen is one of four options being debated, this one designed by the ED2 group in southern France - all designs are said to have the dimensions set to the above specifications. Personally, I think the current design looks to have borrowed a bit from the hybrid concept body they displayed at the TMS two years ago, but this looks much cleaner.

Now as far as the powertrain goes, this project really got its start 2 years ago when Toyota acquired a closer relationship with Subaru, purchasing a 9% share in Subaru's parent company FHI from GM, and then upping their share to 16% last year. The designers were very interested in the lower center of gravity that the boxer engine could provide, and went to work right away once they got tinkering rights. What they have eventually come up with is said to be a significantly improved upon naturally aspirated EJ20-based engine, with direct injection and an idling stop added among other things to help improve both fuel economy and emissions without sacrificing the almighty bottom line that is the dyno output. This engine mated to a 6MT with a classic 3-pedal cockpit layout (no paddle-shifting for the hachi-roku!!) will deliver 200 hp at 7200rpm and 21.0 kgm (152ft-lbs.) of torque over a wide and low range of 2400-4400 rpms to the rear wheels (for the Toyota version). All the tweaks have kept a very respectable estimated 15-16 km/l (35-38 mpg) fuel estimate to go along with the power. This is no slouch by any means, making the the power-to-weight ratio slightly higher than that of the legendary hachi-roku at 1:6 (FT-86) compared to 1:7.15 (AE86).

Now last but not least comes the price tag: up to this point they've been sticking with their rather ambiguous statement of "affordable for the average working man", which originally was thought to mean around 2.0M yen (roughly $20,000 US) in keeping with the original. As development has moved along this number has crept up to 2.5M, with some thinking it might even wind up being more than that when all is said and done. Toyota however, in it's determination to make this an affordable sports car in the spirit of the project, is now apparently considering a base model in the range of 2.3 - 2.5M yen (again roughly $23,000-25,000 USD), with options galore.

The developers are sticking to saying that what you see at the TMS is still a rough idea of what will eventually be on sale, but this concept car is not rough around the edges at all. I have no idea what the other 3 designs they're contemplating are, but speculation is that they are being worked on by Toyota here in Tokyo and the CALTY offices in southern California, and possibly another Italian design factory. I personally have no doubt that this car will be an overwhelming success once released, but Toyota is saying that they are more concerned about making a car that reminds people what fun behind the wheel is supposed to mean than sales figures. To show these guys know how to have fun, they say that they are even drifting these prototypes on the track and have figured out what they believe to be the perfect weight distribution ratio for drifting - which they say in no way should be confused with meaning a 50:50 distribution like the Mazda RX-8. It certainly sounds like they have their shit straight to me!

Now I also have information I shall eventually share about the Subaru end of the project (yes, there are a fair bit of differences), and also some information about the Honda CR-Z hybrid FF-sports car... although really the only reason I would have to share that would be to show how much better the FT-86 is than it. ;P

I'll also definitely be giving an update after hitting up the show myself, if nothing else for the pictures. All pictures here were taken from the Nikkei Trendy article referenced above and can be seen in their original sizes by following the link.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Joyo Kanji!!


凄い!


Yesss... every Japanese language nerd's dream come true- more kanji!! Well technically speaking, actually, none of them are new. Rather they are mostly quite common, which is entirely the point. But hey, I guess first I should stop talking (typing?) to myself and let you guys in on what I'm rambling about, right?

So word on the street is that next year they're talking about adjusting the daily use kanji list to 2,131 characters. 5 characters (銑 (SEN, pig iron), 錘 (tsumu, spindle), 匁 (monme, a unit of weight), 勺 (shaku, a unit of capacity), and 脹 (CHOU, swell)) are up for removal, and another 191 are slated to be included. Of those being removed, I would really only consider one (腫, as commonly seen in 腫れる, to become swollen) all that useful.

This would be the first update to the list in almost 30 years, and to be honest I think it's about time. Due largely to the advent of computers and cell phones, it is so much easier to use kanji now - no one knows how to write them, but you don't have to to be able to type them in. (You think people can actually write 鬱病?)

So what's new? Well a lot of stuff is used in place names. Believe it or not, there are quite a few characters that are currently not "general use" that are used in the names of a few cities, prefectures and *ahem* close by countries: 熊 from 熊本 [Kumamoto], 奈 from 神奈川 [Kanagawa] and 奈良 [Nara], 茨 from 茨城 [Ibaragi], 栃 from 栃木 [Tochigi], 阜 from 岐阜 [Gifu], 阪 from 大阪 [Osaka]... even 韓 from 韓国 [Korea]!! These were all on a separate "name characters" list up until now, but I mean seriously? I think Osaka was in my vocab lists 1st semester, Japanese 101. Oh and the word for vocab (語彙)? Until now that didn't make the list as well.

Besides that, some of the stuff on the list are total gimmes - I cannot believe that the words for chopsticks, bath, pillow, rainbow a slew of food words and most of all 俺 (おれ、masculine 'I') is currently not considered "general use".

To be fair, "general use" is really just a guideline though and doesn't necessarily dictate the limits of most people's knowledge. You're supposed to know this list and the name list by the time you graduate high school here, but most kids would already know all the characters on this expansion list as well. Going through them myself I recognized about 2/3rds of them. You can check the list out yourself over at kanjiclinic.com if you want, by the way.

So that being said, I guess the big difference is that a lot of the words that up until now you would see in broken combinations in newspapers will finally be able to be printed properly (完ぺき→完璧, うつ病→鬱病, あいまい→曖昧, etc.). This actually brings up what to me I see as a rather interesting side note - newspapers are written such that anyone with a high school education can read them, and this does not only go for Japan. From what I've heard, actually, US newspapers are written more at like a 9th/10th grade level, if that... not even graduating high school!

More kanji I say, more! It's not going to hurt anything, and hopefully this means these will make their way into a newly revamped JLPT for me to have something to brush up on when I finally get around to taking level 1 again.

Oh and finally a note - the word at the top of this post got snubbed from the list, despite the fact that it is used daily by mixi and keitai users nationwide.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Great Burger

This would just so happen to be my submission for the Japan Blog Matsuri, which is rather convenient because I was planning on writing about this place anyway due to its sheer awesomeness.

Ok, I hope you are ready for a treat, because a burger like this does not come along everyday. Now many people may think that burgers are a decisively American food, but then many people thought that Britney Spears deserved a Grammy Award, and you'll never convince me of that one. Many people also tend to think of food in Japan as generally light faire, but they wouldn't totally be right on this point either. While the streets do flow with more tuna than anywhere else in the world, Tokyo especially is great for international cuisine of all kinds - including burgers, which brings us to today's topic. The Great Burger.

I originally stumbled quite haphazardly across this gem looking online for a good burger place one day. I've been to Kua'aina Burger, Sasebo Burger and a slew of others, but this one in my opinion really does top them all and should rightly be the #1 meaty solace of any guy living in or near Tokyo that occasionally needs a manly serving of beef to get the blood pumping. If you're going to go out of your way to get a burger in Tokyo, settle for nothing less!

So shall we start with the burger then? My biggest gripe with Sasebo Burger is that while they are quite tasty, the burger itself is rather Japan-sized. Great Burger has no such problems with a nicely sized patty, seasoned to perfection. Also, with 20 different burgers, including a gorgonzola burger and both double and triple burgers as well as 10 additional optional toppings, they are sure to sate the hunger of even the most ravenous of appetites. Just remember - if you eat a triple burger then you have to live with yourself after wards. Of course size is no substitute for taste, and this burger holds no punches in that category either. I've been to Ray's Hell Burger in DC (ok, technically across the river in Arlington), which was visited by Obama a few months back and is arguably the best burger at least in the DC area, and this is easily as good as their burgers. Pictured to the right is the bacon double cheeseburger without relish, mustard and mayonnaise of the condiments they put on the burger as standard. Call me a purist, but I prefer ketchup (or bbq sauce) on my burgers. They all come with steak fries, but the appetizer menu is rather extensive. And while they don't leave you a bottle, there are plenty of packets of ketchup available at each table - more points in the plus column!! (ps: I have been to many places which sacrilegiously serve fries with 1 measly packet of ketchup, which everyone knows is never enough)

I must say though that besides simply having a classic burger, another thing that makes this place great to me is the shakes. Now these are real milkshakes, blended from ice cream with real fresh ingredients added - my girlfriend picked up a chocolate macadamia shake, and there were quite a few large chunks of actual nuts in the shake. I myself rather enjoy the chocolate banana shake. If beer's more your thing, and being that meat is involved I wouldn't blame you if it is, they have close to 30 different beers in stock as well, ranging from one of my sleeper Japanese favorites, Coedo, to Negra Modelo and Pilsner Urquell.


How do I get there, you ask? Well it's closest to Harajuku or Jingumae stations, but Shibuya is walkable, too. It's situated off of Cat Street, sort of behind the Audi and Uniqlo: UT stores, so while you're there you might as well wander around to check out some of the boutiques and cafes around that define the area. Like most places on Cat Street, the store itself is rather small, so be prepared for a crowd if you show up around lunch time.

Restaurant details:
Address - Tokyo-to, Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 6-12-7 J-Cube A, 1F
Phone No. - 03-3406-1215
Hours - 11:30 - 23:00

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tokyo's Plastic Food

Not that this is particularly specific to Tokyo, but that was the title of a video over at the BBC on the topic. Thinking back to when I first got here I guess it was rather amusing at first, but of course this is just one of those things that loses its shock value after a while and becomes just another mundane detail of life lost in the noise. Oh and by the way, they were originally all made of wax, but production was mostly changed over to resins such as plastic due to the models getting soft when left out in the sun. Apparently some of the more difficult things to model are still made of wax.


As the video points out, a lot of effort goes into making food samples for restaurants here in Japan: they first make molds from the actual food itself, then pour resin into it, and finally hand paint it to look delicious. Each one is hand made to order with everything from steaks and beer to soup and pasta available, all painstakingly crafted to whet your appetite.

The origins of this industry are a tad iffy, but a few possibilities place the first of these food samples (食品サンプル), as they're known in Japanese, as somewhere between 1917 and 1932, possibly first offered at either the Shirokiya department store or by the Shimadzu Corporation, which does have some history with chemicals.

I think that this is definitely one of those little things that does have merit, especially for those that may not be able to read the menu, like tourists. Of course there wouldn't be a market for this if it was only for foreigners - the thought behind these food samples is that a simple menu with words doesn't fully convey what the meal will look like, so this helps to draw customers in. I also find that many menus here tend to have a lot more pictures as well, which I also think is a good thing.

Will you ever see anything like this anytime soon at a restaurant near you? Unfortunately, unless you're living in Japan I think it's doubtful. There is an entire multi-billion yen industry behind food samples, but with each one being hand crafted, their reach is limited almost exclusively to Japan with some getting out into other parts of Asia, such as China.

Fortunately though, for those interested in learning more about what goes into the making of this everyday art form, you can visit an area with plenty of sample producing shops in the city of Gujo in Gifu Prefecture, some of which have hands on tours that will let you try your hand at making some. Two such factories are Sample Village Iwazaki and Sample Kobo. (links are Japanese only!) Also, if you are in the Tokyo area then you can find a whole bunch of food artisans populating an area between Asakusa and Ueno known as Kappabashi.

And finally, here's a video of someone making a plastic piece of shrimp tempura.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Japan's 1st Red Bull Cart Race


It was a lovely day in Odaiba for a rather odd event, the existence of which I was made privy to due to a rather bizarre promotional campaign I told you about a while back. This was Japan's 1st Red Bull Cart Race, and both the spectators and participants warmed up to it rather pleasantly, I must say. It was covered over at the BBC as well, with a nice little video... I saw the aftermath of the wreck, but their video was way better than the view I had!

As is standard for this kind of event, the entries had their share of color, and you had every opportunity to talk to just about all of the teams before and after they ran. There were teams from all over the country and covering all kinds of themes, from environmental to tiger woods and ninjas to fish in a bath tub and takoyaki. Awesome, randomness at its best!

Since I took the change to talk to a few of the team participants, I'll give you a little more detail on those teams along with some pictures. First, we have the takoyaki team from out in Mie. They were kind enough to let us climb into their cart for some photo ops, and told us that their cart took them 3-4 months to construct in total. They're looking forward to next year.
Next we have this guy - any guess what that rear wheel is from? The rear wheel and front suspension were both taken from a Ferrari... I hope they didn't try to use those fliers I saw in Cat Street.
There were plenty of other bizarre contenders - the guy posted at the top of the page was actually the driver of the first cart to run, and yes he wore that while racing! All the participants were very open, friendly and willing to chat about their projects as long as you were, which is pleasant in what can sometimes feel like a cold and heartless city. Here are some more pictures, and as always the rest can be found on the flickr page.

Starting the event off right.

I have absolutely no idea what this is supposed to be... not Ultraman, the "Safety Unzenger"?

The flower power tank, mid race.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ishigaki: Your Next Vacation Destination

Ok, been rather busy lately, as you may have noted by my absence from any and all things blog-related as of late. On the plus side, the less I'm writing here the more I'm finding new and interesting things to write about! So without any further ado, allow me to present the topic of this entry: a little island I recently had the pleasure of visiting called Ishigaki. If you live in Japan, I highly recommend that you make this your next vacation destination!!

For those of you not in the know, you are in for an absolute treat. Before I get into the nitty gritty, just take a look at the picture above - look at that water! You can see all the way to the bottom in what is some of the clearest water you will find anywhere on the planet. The color that is there is mostly a pale blue to green, colored largely in part by the copious amounts of corals that abound, sometimes mere inches from the surface. Seriously- this was the only place I've ever been where you could see tropical fish swimming around your feet by merely wading in a few meters from the beach! Tiny little bright blue fishies (and one big gray guy they kept nibbling at my back), one big jump from the shore on the northern beach of Ishigaki.

Ok, so now that I have your attention, a little background. Ishigaki is the highest populated island in the Yaeyama island chain, the most southern and western cluster of islands in Okinawa (and Japan, for that matter). Okinawa itself is closer geographically to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo, and Ishigaki is another hour's plane ride from the main island of Okinawa. Here's a nice little travel guide of the area I found.


So once you get down there, what is there to do you ask? Well besides the clear waters that are perfect for diving and full of all kinds of coral everywhere and manta rays if you go to the right part, there is a culture that is about as far removed psychologically from Tokyo as it is spatially. These guys are laid back, and they can cook to boot. Champuru is probably the most famous Okinawan cuisine, and it's great down here whether you go with the goya (see right) or tofu variety. To drink, you either have your choice of Orion beer or Awamori, Okinawa's version of Shochu. For those interested, I've looked up a rather decent tofu champuru recipe which I will more than willingly translate and share with anyone.

So that's all rather common knowledge for anyone who knows anything about Okinawa, but what isn't that common knowledge is that Ishigaki is also home to a huge number of Black Angus cattle and a great local beer, named rather simply but aptly Ishigaki Beer. Yes they take orders online, and I highly encourage you to flood their inbox with requests for their Weitzen, modeled proudly by yours truly on the left. I can think of no better way to try it out than to head out to a steak house in the sticks run by a farm and use it to wash down some succulent beefy bits of... beef. It's still what's for dinner. So now you have your choice between goya and steak, Orion and Weitzen, check.

What about the sights? Well personally I liked the caverns there, but more than that are the other islands that come with the package, some as close as a 10 minute ferry ride away. Yaeyama basically just means "8 islands", so take your pick and hop on the boat. I saw two others, Iriomote and Taketomi. For info on the other islands, check the guide referenced above.

First off for me was Iriomote, home to 75% of Japan's mangroves. This place is almost totally jungle and totally amazing, wildlife and everything. There are also some great waterfalls to go along with the crazy trees and vibrant wildlife - they are also known for their cats, the yamaneko, and have some great lizards and butterflies around. An all day jungle tour here with some optional diving is a great way to go. Here we also stopped off on Barras island, but really calling it an island is generous. It's basically a mound of coral that is barely visible at high tide, but at low tide juts out high enough for you to "land" there as a jumping point for diving or snorkeling.

Next on the agenda was Taketomi, the butterfly island. At only a 10 minute ride from Ishigaki port, you'd be stupid not to check this place out for at least an afternoon. If you rent a bike, you can make your way around the entire island in about 3 hours, which basically consists of a tiny village with a population of 350 residents or so, probably 50 times as many butterflies, and beaches. Some of the beaches have coral sand shaped like little stars, and the village itself has sweet architecture which is nothing like you'll see anywhere at least in mainland Japan. This is a great place to spend a totally relaxing afternoon on the beach and just zone out.

So plenty to see, and because Japan is goofy like that you can spend a week seeing all this for about the same price as you would pay to rent a car and drive from Tokyo to Hiroshima with a few stops along the way... I did the math. Next time you wonder why so many Japanese people travel more abroad then they do within their own borders, ponder on that one for a few.

Here are a few other choice photos I took in my travels, with the full album available on my flickr account.

View from Sunset Beach - NW part of Ishigaki

Shisa statue on Taketomi island

Taking a drink at Pinay Sara (sp?) falls, Iriomote island

A cow put to manual labor, pulling suigyuu duty. These are most famous off of Iriomote, but this picture was taken on Taketomi.

Another shisa, just because they're that cool.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Change of Diet

So the big news out here as of late is the national elections, which make it appear as if I will shortly be seeing my 5th Prime Minister since stepping foot in Japan. This time around it's associated with a potentially huge paradigm shift politically, but I won't even begin to act like I'm highly versed in Japanese politics. Just know that the swing was huge - the ruling party coalition of the LDP/New Komeito went from 300 and 30 seats in the Japanese Diet respectively to 119 and 21. The JDP in the meantime went from 115 seats up to 308, given it a straight out majority even without the others in its coalition. Other, more informed opinions on the reprucussions can be found here, and if you'd like to know what the new leader, Yukio Hatoyama, himself has to say then check out his NYT Op-ed here. Also, if you like numbers and statistics, there's some that have pointed to this happening for the past 15 years or so according to this over at 538, although Japanese politics is definitely not Nate Silver's bag (baby).

I also find that I must note a rather interesting observation I heard from someone I know, and that is the slight resemblence of Hatoyama (or "pigeon mountain", if you prefer) to a certain Christopher Walken... I'll let you be the judge.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Battling cultures in the world of tech support

I ran into a rather interesting snag this past week that was, at least to me, most unexpected.

So my girlfriend's computer has been giving her an odd error involving memory/space allocation or some such nonsense, which I for the life of me could not fix. This along with some less than ideal partitioning and some other things made me decide it'd be easier to just start from scratch with a fresh install. She doesn't have a recovery disk or anything, so I used a fresh copy of English Windows XP.

Now in what I would consider normal circumstances, you can go to the homepage of most laptop manufacturers and download any drivers you might need, or at least find out which drivers to look for and find them elsewhere. A visit to the Sharp Japan homepage, however, gives no such information.

Furthermore, clicking on the "support" button is rather telling I think in the difference in mentalities between Japanese service and American service. They give you 4 options: 1) I don't know how to use my computer, 2) I'd like to send my computer in for service, 3) I'd like you to setup my computer for me, and 4) I want to upgrade my computer. Further clicking shows that you can call their call center for the first year for free advice (pay after that), or bring it in and pay them to look at it. In the US, they couldn't be happier to have you try and fight with it yourself, as it'll save them time and effort.

So not only can I not find driver or specific hardware information, there is nowhere on the website that I can find an option to simply ask them for such information, or even advice without paying. Not even a simple email. I went through their FAQ on re-installation, and the only thing they mention on hardware drivers is to use their reinstall disk.

Just for a bit of balance, I went to the Dell support page to check, and sure enough "drivers and downloads" was the first option on the list. In my time here, it seems to me that either people are less willing to try to take on a task themselves or maybe just merely don't have the time to, and are thus much more dependent upon the service industries.

This could be a chicken/egg argument as I'm not sure which is the cause and which is the result and, albeit to a lesser extent, this exists at home as well, but this is far from an isolated case. You get looks of amazement telling most people out here that you've changed not only your own oil, but also your own brakes and so on. Now granted, in this case there is also the problem of having the space to work on your own car, but the fact that most people wouldn't even consider trying to pick up a wrench themselves is beyond me. I've heard stories from a particular friend married to a Japanese man who has wound up looking up how to fix her toilet herself when the husband didn't know where to begin. TV's broken? Well it's too hard to even think about fixing, better just buy a new one.

I'm sure that at least to some extent most of these are cases where the money spent for these services is for the saved time it allows, but there's also that element of Eastern willful interdependence vs. Western individualistic mistrust. Japanese companies further fuel this by basically saying "that's really complicated, you wouldn't understand. Just leave it to me."

Nah, I think I'd still rather figure it out myself and learn something in the process.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Unexpected lessons from life in Japan

Note: Edited Oct. 20 to officially add #10.

So having spent 4 of the last 10 years of my life abroad now, it's interesting to look back and see some of the less obvious things that I've learned in my time in Japan and roaming around. I'm sure there's plenty more I'm not thinking of, this is just off the top of my head.

1. What a real cockroach looks like.
By the time I first stepped foot in Japan I already knew a bit of the language, but the first new word I learned was 'gokiburi', or cockroach. Japanese roaches can get frickin' huge, and unless you have lived either Japan, Texas or somewhere south of the border or tropical, then I doubt you really know what I'm talking about here. Besides that though, the greater point here is that there is a whole world of disgusting and scary bugs out there that I was never aware of until coming here - 2" cockroaches, poisonous centipedes, giant moths and most recently swarms of little gnat-like flies that simply will not go away... I'll get back to that one later. To be fair though, there are cool bugs too like kabutomushi and praying mantises, which if you're lucky will feast on unassuming cockroaches.

2. Whale isn't so hot, but horse meat is actually pretty good.
If you live somewhere halfway across the globe, you're more than likely going to have to eat the local food or else pay out the ass to maintain your old eating habits. Luckily in Japan this isn't too bad since most of the food is excellent. This also includes being a bit adventurous sometimes, and I've taken some rather wild culinary adventures which have included whale meat, fugu, raw horse, fish scrotums, python-flavored ice cream, several tropical fruits I never even knew existed... and an overnight stay in a Bangkok hospital, but we won't talk about that one. The view was nice, at least. At the top of my list for "exotic" (Japan doesn't really feel so exotic after a while, thus the quotes) foods, I would say do try raw horse (basashi), fugu and eel (anago if they have it, unagi if they don't), stay away from fish scrotums (shirako), and only eat whale or sea urchin (uni) if you haven't tried it and want to, just once for the experience.

3. Most sauces and dressings are really simple to make.
I cook way more since coming to Japan - mostly because it's cheaper and healthier. I do make local stuff as well, but sometimes you just want a little taste of home. The only problem is that a lot of times the sauces and dressings you're used to back home are prohibitively expensive, if you can find them at all. Luckily, in times like this there is the interweb, with a little place called recipes.com. Can't find bbq sauce? No problem - do you have ketchup, sugar and red wine? Ranch dressing? Well that's just mayo, sour cream, garlic, onion and few other spices. I've figured out how to make a whole bunch of things from scratch out of necessity, and had plenty of fun along the way.

4. 3USD/gallon for gas is pretty damn cheap.

Growing up in the US, it's easy to become disillusioned about fuel prices, and really the cost of driving overall. You don't think about it, but we have government subsidies to thank for artificially lower gas prices than the rest of the civilized world as well as a mostly toll-free national highway system. Out here they'll charge you about as much for a liter as you would get a gallon in the US for, and there is not one section of highway that doesn't charge a toll. Luckily there's an easy way to get around the whole thing here - trains. You guys should look into those. :P

5. Toilet paper and toilets that have seats and flush are a luxury.
Wow- you would not believe the spectrum of toiletry you find in Asia! Starting off in Japan is actually pretty tame, although you do get to run the entire bathroom gauntlet from its traditional squatters (supposedly crouching helps things come out, but I'm not going to find out) to talking washlets that can make artificial flushing noises so no one hears you fart if you're concerned about that kind of thing. Once you get used to that go out to a place like Thailand, where I looked for toilet paper and instead saw a bucket of water with a small cup inside to wash myself with. Or China, where a friend of mine not only had to squat, but did so right next to other guys with no walls between them. Lovely stuff.

6. The whole world does not share my affection for cheese, and Chicken Kung Pao is not real Chinese food
It was almost traumatic the first time I went to a Japanese supermarket and looked for the cheese section. It was a selection of two types: sliced and grated. Simply another one of those products that isn't used in cooking as much as back home, so you don't find it as much (see #3 above). Also though, going to restaurants you'll find that things aren't served the same as you're used to. You may find a "hamburger steak", and when they bring you a side of fries you may get a single packet of ketchup when you expected them to just leave the bottle. Or even worse, they may just give you a dollup of mayonnaise! If you go to a Chinese restaurant, don't bother looking for General Tso's Chicken or Chicken Kung Pao, but say hello to gyoza and shumai. There's also Japanese interpretations of Italian, Thai, Indian and just about any other food you can think of which will more than likely be different than what you're used to. This can be doubly true if it's the Japanese interpretation of your own country's food - do not go to a Japanese Denny's as you will be most disappointed.

7. Never get an apartment on the 1st floor.

This may be more true here than back home, but God living on the 1st floor has more drawbacks than I could ever imagine! When you search for an apartment here, they list "2nd floor and above only" as a possible search criterion, and I now know why. I thought it was just a girl thing - not wanting neighborhood pervs stealing their panties and peering in to see them change and all (anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem with being seen less than fully dressed). But oh no, it doesn't stop there. First, it was the additional moisture, which gives way to mold. I have had mold on my floors, in the bathroom, on my clothes... on my couch! And then there's the bugs... they stay close to the ground, and we get them all. Never again, never again.

8. Platypodes lactate but don't have nipples, and other fun facts.
Ok, so this one doesn't actually directly relate to the point that I wanted to make per se, but it is an interesting and random fact that I looked up at work one day so I'm going to let it ride. I find out all sorts of interesting tidbits of useful uselessness for work looking stuff up on wikipedia among other sources. Some recent findings are where Toyota got the name 'corolla' from (it's actually the name for the petals of a flower) and that Princess Di was actually cursed by ancient Japanese superstitions. Sometimes it's more interesting than other times, and this is something that probably would've happened no matter where I work, but I'm guessing my job being here has me looking up different things than you would back home.

9. Lorries, boots and general dodginess.
An interesting thing happens when all of a sudden English is the common language between you and people from all over the world - you learn all sorts of quirky localisms from all 4 corners of the globe. This goes doubly true when you are asked at work to "fix" your own Americanisms to match a text to what someone in the UK (or Kenya, apparently) expects to see. Trucks suddenly become lorries, and Sarah Palin goes from being a dangerously uninformed extremist to merely being a wanker. This knowledge becomes doubly useful when on a night on the town with your new neighbor from New Zealand or Egypt, or somewhere else you're not likely to have ever actually been yourself (if you have then good for you). Now why a globe has four corners I have not a clue, but you will be sure that I shall be looking it up later per #8.

10. All the Stuff I've learned about Brazil. (added Oct. 20)
The last thing you expect coming to a country is learning about elsewhere in the world, but the truth of the matter is that you being fellow foreigners with others sometimes means you'll make bonds with a rather international crew. Since coming to Japan I have friends in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Korea... I could go on. I started capoeira out here too, which means I could find a place to stay in Brazil, no problem.

That's about all I have for now - if you have any additions of your own, feel free to comment.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shinkansen vs. HSR in the US - background


I've been rather busy lately, but now that I have a little free time I'd like to take the opportunity to comment on an issue that I find interesting - the recent talk I've seen about establishing high-speed rail in the US, and more often than not the reasons it won't work. You of course see people pointing to examples in Europe, Japan, even China and Korea, but people discount these examples of integrated public transportation systems that work by saying that there's no way it'd work with the sprawl of the US. There's a small nugget of truth nestled in that pile of bullshit - let me give you a little background on the conversation before going through what I've ascertained.

The Discussion

First off, the detractors - freakonomics has a post commenting on a rather negative assessment on the economics of HSR in the US by another economist over at the Times, Edward Glaeser of the economix blog. The freakonomics post references a certain Randal O'Toole critique from the CATO institute, who recently commented that NYC would be better by replacing their subway with busses, because that would make driving in the worst traffic in the country just that much more pleasant don't you know. The economix post talks about a hypothetical, stand-alone Dallas-Houston HSR line, which is pretty much doomed for failure from the beginning... at least from an economic standpoint.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the train geeks and those pushing for updates to the transportation system, such as the proposed line in California and the Midwest connector centering around Chicago, the latter of which has some good direct response to a few arguments against rail. I've also seen reference to other lines which are prospering despite all those who said it was foolish to try building them.

Background on Japanese Rail

Also just to give you a little idea of where I'm coming from, here's where Japan stands on things. The shinkansen, Japan's HSR system, has been around since 1964 and has transported more passengers (over 6 billion) in its lifetime than any other HSR system in the world. This covers 2,459 km (1,528 mi.) of track servicing most of the greater cities from Kyushu to Tohoku - once the Kyushu extensions are completed next year, you'll be able to go all the way from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to Aomori at the top of the Tohoku area, with further extension into Hokkaido up to Sapporo planned. The busiest line is the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka, which carries 151 million passengers a year, runs 10 trains per hour in either direction with 16 cars each, and goes up to 270km/h (168mph). Other trains see speeds up to 300km/h, with new trains to start service soon to further up that to 320km/h. According to numbers from 2007, the shink was more competitive than other modes of transportation for trips between 100 and 500 mi., holding 66% of the share of trips between 313 and 460 mi. (21% and 11% for air and cars respectively over the same distance). (source)

This of course only builds upon Japan's already expansive local rail systems, which permeate the entire country. While they do have their problems, the trains, when combined with busses, make owning a car a total luxury for most anyone living at least in the greater Tokyo area, including much of Chiba, Kanagawa (including Yokohama and Kawasaki) and Saitama prefectures, which in total account for 35 million people or roughly 27% of the current national population. Add in The Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolitan area with its 18.6 million population and you're up to over 40% of the country in these two major centers alone. The entire nation's population has gradually relocated as development has gradually centered around this rail system, making full use of the investments.

The Effects

There are of course going to be the obvious energy efficiency and air pollution effects. It also lowers use of oil of which is all imported in Japan due to lack of resources, and makes it run on electricity, which can be run by local resources. A good portion of Japan's power is thermally produced using fossil fuels, but it also has a lot of hydroelectric power and is one of the biggest users of nuclear power in the world.

Shinkansen and regular rail line development have totally rearranged the Japanese economy and lifestyle. Besides just connecting locations and making it easier to get around, bigger stations are bustling economic centers, with department stores, shops and just about anything you can think of. As mentioned before, you'll notice that real estate along rail lines is at a premium since everyone wants to be in an accessable location. New stations, whether local lines or shink lines, can totally revitalize local economies.

To take myself as an example, a bicycle, trains and busses get me pretty much anywhere I could possibly want to go on a daily basis, and I live about 30-minutes by train from anywhere that would be considered "downtown". I have about a 13-minute walk to the closest station, which is considered far by Tokyo standards.

The Costs

Certainly not cheap. Initial costs of the Tokaido line was 380 billion yen back in 1959 (1.055 billion USD, equivalent to 7.71 billion in modern terms). Due to it's great success, however, the loans were repaid by 1971, and it has been highly profitable ever since. The budget back in 2007 for new lines was 263.7 billion yen (~2.2B USD), shared between the national and local governments. The latest proposal is for maglev upgrades between Tokyo and Osaka at $82.5 billion with a big ol' "B" in USD, which while it would be cool, I'm still not totally convinced are necessary given Japan's already great transportation system.

Other Factors

Some factors make construction more expensive in Japan than they would be pretty much anywhere else, but 70% of this is civic engineering costs needed for all the tunnels (2/3rds of the country is mountainous), bridges and strengthening to account for the effects of earthquakes and heavy rain. Another caveat to keep in mind when applying Japanese rail figures to international debates is that there is next to no demand for freight trains in Japan due to it being surrounded by sea and having most all major centers on the coastlines. Sea freight dominates long distances, and trucks pick up the local slack. (source)

Next time I'll talk more about what I think the problems are with the arguments against HSR.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fun with ALC

I spend a fair amount of time digging through dictionaries and resource materials with work and other things, and one of my favorite tools online has got to be ALC. It's just your ordinary Japanese-English dictionary, but they have slang in there too and a great variety of alternative ways to say things... sometimes too much, actually. These variations can be dangerous for someone just starting out learning Japanese (the first entries for 格好いい, which would basically mean 'cool', are "cool beans", "off the hook", and "on point"- cool beans!! Flashback to 5th grade...), but if you're working with a good base of knowledge and backing up use of ALC with other sources, like Japanese-Japanese dictionaries and more traditional sources, then it's quick and awesome.

Anyway, a side effect of this variation is that I sometimes run across some rather bizarre example sentences, some of which I'll share now.

Searching for 凝視する I came up with the following entry:

同じ時期、車の通行の激しい道路でインコを地上高く投げ、落下して地面に叩きつけられたうえ、車に轢かれるインコを凝視するAkiの姿も目撃されている。
There was another incident around that time where she was seen throwing a parakeet high into the air at a busy road, and staring at the bird as it fell and was run over by cars.
I don't know who this Aki person is, but apparently she throws dead birds into oncoming traffic, sweet.

Or this one was particularly good, under the entry for 考えられがち:

「ホモ(ホモセクシュアリティ)」とイコールと考えられがちであるが、オカマはもっと広い意味で使用される。
People often tend to think of this word as having the same meaning as "homo (homosexuality)", but "okama" is used in a much wider sense.
This is actually quite true - "okama" has more range than just covering your garden variety gay guy, and is probably closer to meaning a cross-dresser. I really wasn't expecting that looking up a phrase that basically means "is often thought of as", but yeah thanks for the info.

Of course next, I just had to search for the term "okama" itself:

またこのオカマにくっついて遊んでいる女性を釜の底に付くことから「おこげ」と呼ぶ。
Women who go out together with "okama" are said to "stick to the bottom of the 'kama'" and so are referred to as "okoge", or the "scorched rice" found at the bottom of the pan.
Wow, and there you have it... learn something new every day! Lesson of the day: "okoge" means faghag in Japanese, nice!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

1Q84, chapter 1

If you don't want to know what the book is about, read no further.

So the linguistic nerd in me is looking for an outlet to make studying fun again. Apparently translating stuff all day for a living isn't good enough, so I've decided to do one paragraph from each chapter of 1Q84 as I read along just to give people a taste of what they otherwise couldn't read without picking up the Japanese original. I'll give the original, then the translation, then some thoughts on the chapter itself.
見かけにだまされないように。現実というのは常に一つきりです。

青豆は大きく息を吸い込み、大きく息をはいた。そして『ビリー・ジーン』のメロディーを耳で追いながら鉄柵を乗り越えた。ミニスカートが腰のあたりまでまくれあがった。かまうものか、と彼女は思った。見たければ勝手に見ればいい。スカートの中の何を見たところで、私という人間が見通せるわけではないのだ。そしてほっそくとした美しい両脚は、青豆が自分の身体の中で一番誇らしく思っている部分だった。
Translation:

Don't be fooled by outward appearances. There's always only one reality.

Aomame inhaled deeply and then exhaled. She then climbed over the railing while continuing to chase the melody of Billy Jean with her ears. Her mini skirt rolled up around her hips. "Who cares!" she thought. If they want to look, let them look. It's not like they're going to see what kind of person I am just from seeing under my skirt. Besides, her firm, alluring legs were the part of Aomame's body that she was most proud of.

Well it's a little harder to capture the art of an author's work than I was thinking, but that's basically the gist of things.

The book opens to the first of 2 main characters, Aomame. She's supposed to be a stunning beauty that doesn't try to stand out, but with an odd name like that she always gets teased (I've never heard that name, and it sounds like edamame, the green beans everyone traditionally snacks on with beer).

As with many novels, we find our subject in a very normal situation, with a twist. This time around, our girl Aomame is trapped in an endless traffic jam on the Shutoko, the Tokyo expressway, in a taxi with an abnormally good sound system. The music evokes memories she has no earthly reason to remember, then upon the suggestion of her knowledgeable driver decides to hop out and take an emergency ladder down to ground level and hop a train so she can make her meeting on time (the Shutoko is elevated).

I think that first sentence above is going to have something to do with the theme of the book - there's always only one reality. I liked how Murakami sneaks an MJ reference in there too... almost too precognizant with his timing on that one. Then again it is supposed to be 1984, so I'm sure Billy Jean was playing all over the place.

And there you have it - the highly abridged summary of chapter 1 of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.

For an introduction to the book, go here. Stay tuned for more.

Uniqlo: Japan meets the Gap


In Japan there's this store that everyone goes to, but most people don't readily admit or talk about. Well, at least that's how most Japanese people see it to the best of my knowledge, but there are plenty of foreigners that are just nuts about the place and can't rave about it enough... I myself wouldn't go quite that far. This store has a name, and its name is Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is sort of like the Japanese version of the Gap - or maybe what the Gap should be. Their prices are cheap and they'd like to think they have style, but most people just go there for plain items they wear layered under stuff that can blend in with whatever they're wearing. Uniqlo's strengths are its affordable prices and comfort, which in trying economic times such as these are a great business platform. While Toyota is posting its first annual numbers in the red ever, the owner of Uniqlo has just this year become the richest man in Japan at a net worth of $6.1B USD, surpassing the former top Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo fame. In fact, Tadashi Yanai hasn't ruled out trying a buyout of the Gap to catapult his company's ambitions for going global and hitting the US market fullscale. In actuality, the economic downturn is probably helping Uniqlo's numbers since these are about the only times that no-name and cheaper business models can take off in Japan - as an example, the used book store Book-Off made used books popular around the time of the bubble collapse.

Anyway, I recently stopped by Uniqlo as I was running embarrassingly low on underwear that didn't have holes in them, and while wearing Japanese pants for me is normally akin to a Chris Farley "fat guy in a little coat" session due to 15+ years of soccer and capoeira, Uniqlo is rather well known for comfortable undies and fitting us furriners. So I decide to give them a shot.

So I went out to the newly opened Shinjuku store (pictured above) and got my shop on. While I was there I stopped in the UT section, which is Uniqlo's attempt at fashion in "designer t-shirts", if such a diametrically opposed juxtaposition of terms is allowed (Armani Exchange would like to think so). They had some interesting candidates, but none were interesting enough for me to walk away with. Top candidate is pictured at right, courtesy of the UT homepage.

I must say though, they have put a little effort into things, including buying up rights to put out some random stuff that appeals to foreigners. One great example is Warner Brothers products, which does include Looney Tunes, but also includes the Goonies (!!) and Batman... most Japanese people don't even know about the Goonies!

Japan is absolutely littered with Uniqlo stores, but if you're not in Japan and want to see one, you only chances will be if you live close to New York or LA... or you could just wait for Tada-chan to buy out Gap or some other sucker.

Oh and to anyone wondering, the boxers were still just a tad snug, but I'm sure they'd be fine for most... you might still need to go up a size from what you're used to.

[Edited for embarrasing grammatical errors... my brethren in the "I judge you when you use bad grammar" Facebook group would be ashamed. :'(]

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tokyo erections

Really, I don't like morning people.

I'm not sure what kind of noise ordinance laws there are in Japan, but I am frequently awakened from my slumber on weekends by overzealous go-getters, looking to seize the day before I would argue it should even begin. No, the yaki-imo guy is not trying to make a comeback, but as I have alluded to in the past he certainly is not the only one in Japan that finds it acceptable to roll around in a little truck with a big microphone.

No, this time around it is election season, and the propaganda trucks are out in full force. By propaganda trucks, I am simply referring to the campaign trail as seen in the 1950's of America and Back to the Future. Today is the big day for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections, so hopefully from here on out I will be able to sleep past 9am - these guys have been rolling by my place as early as 8:30 am almost daily for about the past week or two, and I for one am glad that it is all coming to a close. Incidentally, this will be the first time that my girlfriend has voted. The vast majority of Japanese that I know have little to no interest in politics, and that goes double for young people.

So why are Japanese political campaigns stuck in the '50's, you ask? Well there's some stupid law that says that they can't have advertisements on tv, so they have to resort to posters littered everywhere, enough pamphlets and handouts to overfill my mailbox was past the brim, and... little trucks with big microphones, what the hell.

You'd think it would irritate people, but then Japanese are so used to people yelling in their daily lives that I'm sure they just ignore with the rest as it's phased out into white noise in the deep abscesses of their minds. Whether it's the army of guys passing out fliers and trying to talk you into coming to his store in front of the station, or the people standing in the streets yelling outside stores about the "special sale" they have every single week, or the shop clerks constantly yelling 'irrasshaimase' as they walk through stores for 30 years, it must just be second nature to them to ignore some yakiimo schmo or Ichiro Blow politician in their noise truck.

Oh and for those that don't know, the Communist Party is alive and well in Japan with 13 representatives (of 125 total) already in the local assembly - I've seen posters around all over the place, and one of the 3 candidates for the district in which I reside is a pinko commie. Doesn't he look menacing folks? I'm sure he'd chew a baby's head off and spit it out like a piece of overchewed gum... or at least talk it to death.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

1Q84

I've picked up a copy of Haruki Murakami's newest novel, 1Q84. There was quite a buzz when this book came out a little over a month ago (5/29), despite the fact that the author has made it a point not to divulge much information about the book. The cover itself has no synopsis or teaser on the back or inside cover. He has told people that many wished they could've read one of his more famous previous works, Kafka on the Shore, without knowing what it was about, and thus is giving readers that opportunity this time around. This makes it sound like there might be nice twist in there somewhere, but as the first of the 2 volumes already released is 500 pages and the story doesn't end in the 2nd volume, it might take me a while to get to it!

Besides all the hype surrounding this book, what caught my attention was the title, obviously referring to the classic work of George Orwell, 1984. In Japanese 'Q' is the pronunciation of '9', and a friend of mine who marathoned the book (1,000 pages in a weekend!!) tells me that he does indeed refer to the Orwell book a few times. In respect of the author's request I haven't looked up any real details, except I did see a one-sentence description on the wiki page:
1Q84 is described as a "complex and surreal narrative" which "shifts back and forth between tales of two characters, a man and a woman, who are searching for each other." The themes consist of murder, history, cult religion, violence, family ties and love.
As this book isn't slated for translation into English anytime soon I figure it wouldn't be too bad to share. Also since this keeps most everyone that would be reading this from picking it up, I'm considering giving away the story here as I go through the book... assuming it's good enough for me to get through.

By the way, for any of those that do read Japanese I highly recommend the works of a certain Kotaro Isaka (Japanese only). Unfortunately I don't believe any of his work has been translated up to this point, but as a few of his books have been made into movies already one can hope, right?!?

Chapter summaries:
Chapter 1

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shiso-flavored Pepsi?

What were they thinking with this one???

Ok, so every year for the past few years there has been some random limited edition flavor come out that's only available in Japan and only for a limited time!! Japanese people will buy anything if it's only for a limited time. They love their gentei stuff in general (限定= limited issue or limited area goods) - maybe as much as they like cute stuff.

Anyway back to the nastiness, horrible. Two summers ago it was cucumber Pepsi, which wasn't very good. Last year it was apparently Blue Hawaii, which I may or may not have tried but obviously did not leave much of an impression on me if I did. This year? Shiso-flavored Pepsi. What is shiso you may ask? Well the English translation is apparently a "beefsteak plant", which I know has just got your mouth watering already. Basically though, it's that edible minty leaf thing that you may find garnishing your sushi. Shiso by itself isn't too bad I guess, actually pretty good wrapped around (horse) meat, but the mere idea of mixing it with Pepsi is just beyond disgusting to me. It makes me feel like reaching back in my vocabulary about 20 years or so to call it grody. Or maybe it just makes me feel like reaching back into my throat to purge the vileness from my body before it reaches my stomach. That my friends is what grody tastes like. So of course I bought one, but just so I could drink it and tell people how grody it was.

First off, it's green. Smell? Sort of like that wasabi-ish dry spice that shoots up your nose and burns just a tinge. Taste? It sort of lags a bit - at first it just tastes weird like when you were a kid and mixed Mountain Dew in with your Coke and then accidentally put orange juice in instead of orange Fanta, but then the shiso kicks in and it's sweet and spicy at the same time. I've had spicy beer before as well, and I am going to have to say that God did not intend drinks to be spicy. Ever. It does not work.

In the also-ran category, Coke has decided to come out with their own gentei version that people will buy even though it's disgusting, green tea Diet Coke. While I've heard personal account that this is really not good either, it just doesn't trigger my gag reflex as much as shiso Pepsi.

Oh, and as an added bonus, McDonald's is having a special on their McNuggets, which are now a 100 yen until July 2nd (more gentei, I can't control myself!!). They now come with more Pokemon meat, as can be seen on the box to the left. Mmm... pikachu meat.