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!!


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 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.