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Japan celebrates the GIFs that keep on giving

August 21st, 2015 by

GIFs — which stands for graphics interchange format, don’t you know — have made the Internet an even more enjoyable place than before, and we have the receipts to prove it.

These digital designs were technological wonders back in the days of AOL and Netscape (Google it, kids). But they eventually went from high-tech animation to cliched novelties.

In recent years, the retro aesthetic of GIFs has been making big comeback. Nowadays, instead of flashing text, they often reference classic signifiers in pop culture and have become a sort of emotional shorthand, a form of emoji.

They’re now a hip way to express a gamut of feelings — excitement, annoyance, surprise . . . Name an emotion and there’s bound to be the perfect GIF for it. That’s why sites and apps such as Giphy and Nutmeg are becoming the must-have tools for when a smiley is just not enough.

They are not only being used just to express LOLs and winks, but recently GIFs have entered the realm of boda fide art. This year Japanese artist Toyoi Yuuta set Tumblr ablaze by posting a beautiful series of 8-bit GIF creations depicting sometimes melancholic, sometimes surreal scenes of life in Japan.

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Thousands of users reblogged the pieces as the designs invoked memories of the Nintendo Entertainment System and took the seemingly trite medium of GIFs to a new level.

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The artist Segawa 37 took the genre a step higher for Adobe’s GIF contest by giving a modern twist to classic works of “the floating world.” Segawa 37 humorously tweaks the time-honored woodblock prints by including things such as a spaceship swooping in and beaming up Mount Fuji or a group of kimono-clad travelers watching a shinkansen train zoom by.

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Segawa 37’s GIF set also includes pieces that rely more on aesthetics than humor, including paintings of the warm glow of lanterns in Edo’s Yoshiwara district and people watching the Sumida River fireworks.

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It seems that GIFs are beginning to get the artistic credit they deserve, and some are even making the jump from computer screens to galleries. The GIF Exhibition will be held Sept. 5-13 at Tokyo’s Tetoka and will feature a variety of works from around 10 artists. Although the pieces may be over in a flash, visitors are encouraged to slow down and take in every frame.

GIFs have gone from Internet meme to art, but where will they go next? It’s anyone’s guess.

Smart absolutions: Send off your sins with just one click

August 6th, 2015 by

Advances in technology have enabled us to converse with anyone, anywhere, and globally distribute information — and unlimited cat pictures! — in the blink of an eye.

Sumaho ooharae: Just rub and send.

Sumaho ooharae: Just rub and send.

Now, thanks to an online service from National Depart’s Kitokami, we can be rid of our sins with a click of a button.

Kitokami users have two options. Smartphone Ooharae is free smartphone service that enables users to absolve themselves of sins by merely rubbing and breathing on a human-shaped figure displaying on their smartphone screen and clicking the “send sins” button. The figures, imprinted with the name, age and gender of the user, will later be printed out and purified with a sacred fire at Bizen no Kuni Soushagu, a shrine in Okayama.

Web Ooharae is a slightly more tangible version of the service. Customers can purchase wood or paper cards online to be delivered to their homes. After doing the required rub-and-breathe routine on the card, customers will mail them to the shrine to be purified. The cards come in shapes of cats, dogs, bicycles and more, and are priced at ¥1,000 to ¥2,500.

Although Kitokami’s approach is novel, mention of the ooharae custom can be found in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest record of history, which dates back to the 700s. Ooharae is a Shintoist ritual that takes place every year on June 30 and Dec. 31 and other days when necessary. In this ritual, participants transfer their sins and impurities onto nademono, human-shaped paper cutouts. They then blow three breaths on the paper, and Shinto priests recite prayers as they burn the sin-carrying papers in a sacred fire.

Bizen no Kuni Soushagu will light the fire on Aug. 1, 8, and 15 at 9 p.m., so customers should make sure their sins get there on time.

Attack of the plant hunters, green carnivores and fleshy girls

August 4th, 2015 by

A selection from the exotic green world of Seijun Nishihata, whose plants are currently on display at Ultra Plants Exhibition at Ginza's Pola Museum Annex.

A selection from the exotic green world of Seijun Nishihata, whose plants are currently on display at Ultra Plants Exhibition at Ginza’s Pola Museum Annex. (Rina Yamazaki photos)

Living in a concrete jungle, it’s not surprising that many Japanese are eager to bring wildlife back into their lives.

Plant hunter Seijun Nishihata, at Yoyogi Village (Satoko Kawasaki photo)

Plant hunter Seijun Nishihata, at Yoyogi Village (Satoko Kawasaki photo)

One pioneering figure in this field is plant hunter Seijun Nishihata. The fifth-generation representative of major plant wholesaler Hanau Co., he travels around the world in search of unique flowers and plants. Whether it’s down to his charm, his Kansai-influenced sense of humor, his sense of adventure or the exposure he received on the documentary TV show “Jounetsu tairiku,” Nishihata clearly has struck a chord with many people.

This summer, Nishihata is presenting a sample of this green world in the form of “Ultra Plants Exhibition,” at Ginza’s Pola Museum Annex. The selection of rare plants includes a desert rose from Yemen, a prickly tree from a Madagascar thorn forest, and a rare flower from the Indochina peninsula (which was supposed to be featured on Nippon TV’s “Sekaiichi Uketai Jugyou” until staff realized that its smell was too strong). Many of Nishihata’s favorite seasonal plants are also displayed throughout the year at Yoyogi Village’s garden.

Qusamura is another Japanese company that’s cultivating this market for green exotics. Run by “plant sculptor” Kohei Oda, its mission is to find one-of-a-kind plants that are beautiful in unconventional ways. Oda also travels widely in search of unusual plants, some of which can cost as much as ¥70,000.

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Prices of plants sold on Qusamura’s website range from ¥1,000 to ¥70,000.

In addition to selling plants, Qusamura has held multiple art exhibitions this year, such as “Kurogane and Koppaku,” where plants and flowers were presented in bowls created by ceramic artist Shiro Hamanaka. This May, Oda collaborated with American ceramic artist Adam Silverman to release “Grafted,” a collection of photographs of Qusamura plants adorned in Silverman’s pots.

For those who are more into seeing exotic plants in action, several venues throughout Japan —  Osaka, Kyoto, Kochi, Kanagawa, and Tokyo, to name a few — are exhibiting carnivores from the plant this year. In addition to showing how plants that look like cobras attract and digest insects, the exhibitions will present experiments that investigate whether the carnivorous plants’ digestive fluids can melt more than just insects.

A photo posted by pokaasan (@pokaasan) on

No doubt, all of this will appeal to what Nikkei Trendy Net calls “fleshy girls.” Forget the first image that comes to mind; according the publication, fleshy girls are women who collect fleshy plants, which generally contain more water to survive in arid climates. These plants are perfect interior plants because they are usually small and do not wither so easily. Attesting to their popularity, more than a 100,000 Instagram photos have been uploaded with the #fleshyplant hashtag in Japanese.

A photo posted by kumi (@lapoche93) on

According to T-SITE news, Staghorn ferns are the newest trend in interior plants. Just as its name implies, staghorn ferns resemble the shape of deer horns. Some say it also looks like flying bats. Fern fans and interior decorators love this plant because it’s an epiphyte, an acrobatic type of plant that grow on other things, walls or ceilings; no pots necessary.

A photo posted by aki (@hibi15) on

Make 12th-century art using 21st-century tech

July 30th, 2015 by

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The Choju-Giga, the famed animal caricature ink paintings displayed Kyoto’s Kozan-ji Temple have been captivating people for centuries. The four scrolls, which date to the 12th and 13th centuries and depict rabbits and monkeys getting into mischief, are often cited as the first manga comics in Japan’s history.

Now art lovers can create their own masterpieces from the comfort of their Internet browser with the Choju-Giga Construction Kit website.

The site allows users to drag and drop a variety of ink-drawn animals and hiragana letters onto a virtual scroll to make whatever scene they choose. Some of the options include a fiddle-playing frog and a bow-wielding rabbit, giving users numerous story possibilities. The tools — enlarge, shrink, erase — are naturally depicted in hand-drawn calligraphy.

In the Q&A section of the site, the creator basically says he or she simply wanted a free way for users to create classic art. So go forth and roll your own epic scroll, one mouse-click at a time.

Fuji Rock bound? Make sure you survive in style

July 24th, 2015 by

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Raincoats are an essential part of Fuji Rock Festival — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun.

When Kenji Miyazawa famously wrote that people shouldn’t lose to rain, wind or the summer heat, we’re sure he was talking about outdoor events such as Fuji Rock Festival. So to survive the event’s unpredictable weather, here are a few items that will help you stay dry, cool and happy.

Because Fuji Rock Festival prohibits umbrellas, raincoats are an essential source of protection against potential downpours. Retro Arcade Poncho is an old-school way to avoid the rain by turning wearers into the enemy ghosts from Namco’s Pac-Man — with the raincoat coming in red for Blinky and blue for Inky. Feel free to chase around anyone or anything round and yellow while wearing your ghostly getup.

In a more practical category, rain boots will come in handy for guests who still want to jump and dance regardless of any mud or puddles. With Packable Boots, people can easily bring along these thin, waterproof rubber boots that can be folded to fit in a limited space.

Although not as terrifying as typhoons, heat can also be troublesome for participants who want to make the most of the outdoor festival. Cool Ruck is a small backpack that looks and feels cool. Developed by Yamamoto Custom Made Sewing Factory, this heat-fighting bag can fit up to a 500g-sized ice pack, which will last for approximately three dance-filled hours.

Participants can also beat the heat with fashionable accessories. Ice-cube earrings, necklaces, and bracelets are bound to have a visually cooling effect on rockers. Equally cool are these swimming pool rings that can keep people in a refreshing state of mind.

Regardless of the weather, summer festivals are a chance for music fans to wear the outfits that they simply can’t rock out at the office. For example, glowing apparel such as LED-installed skirts, parkas, sunglasses and glow-in-the-dark lipstick that will help you shine no matter how dark the night is.

For those about to rock in style, we salute you.

Pokemon ages ungracefully with middle-aged ‘Ojisan Monsters’

July 16th, 2015 by

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Someday Pikachu and friends will have to stop following Ash Ketchum around the world, retire from battling and get a real job.

That’s part of idea behind “Ojimon,” a new mobile game that is a portmanteau of ojisan (middle-aged man) and Pokemon. Using “ojiballs,” players can catch aging pocket monsters, who have disturbing Kobito Dukan-like faces, and make them do their bidding.

Players can put their new Ojimon to work in gold mines and construction sites, but they’ll need pay attention: These Poke-oldies have a tendency to doze off on the job but can be woken with a quick jab on the touch screen. If enough gold is harvested, players can build roads to the next town and find new Ojimon to catch.

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The game includes the original 150 Pokemon, with graying versions of Charizard, Haunter and Gyarados. Even though it’s not as exciting as battling wild monsters, your Ojimon can still gain experience points through their menial labor and evolve into more powerful forms, albeit with the same sad, unshaven faces.

For an extra laugh (or to avoid copyright infringement), all of the monsters have been given punny names. For example, Fushigidane (Bulbasaur) has been renamed Oyajidane.

“Ojimon” is available for free on Android and iOS.

The new face of Japanese beauty products

July 2nd, 2015 by

Face-off: Japan Times interns model the wide array of beauty masks now available in Japan.

Face-off: Japan Times interns model the wide array of beauty masks now available in Japan.

A wise woman once said that beauty is pain, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be boring. With designer face masks, even the simple act of skin moisturizing can become fun.

Face masks rose to popularity after the 2011 Korean BB Cream craze. Over the past four years, the “lazy girl” alternative to traditional, time-consuming facials has been gaining prominence worldwide. Coated in serums containing everything from collagen and hyaluronic acid to more adventurous ingredients such as snail extract, these face masks claim to moisturize and brighten one’s skin.

To stand out, face mask makers gradually started to experiment with different designs, such as cute pandas or classic kabuki makeup. Inspired by Japanese cosplay (“costume play”), they serve not only as a beauty essential, but also as fun way to remake yourself, if only for 15 to 20 minutes.

These face masks seemed to hit their stride this year. According to a PR representative from beauty company Pure Smile, design face masks first came to being when faced with the question of how to make regular, white face masks more attractive.

Fashion icon Kansai Yamamoto was recruited to design a line of colorful kabuki- themed face masks in March, and beauty company Pure Smile recently teamed up with special makeup artist JIRO to concoct three ghoulish designs for their “Art Mask” line. Prisoner No. 0, Test Subject No. 13 and Type A Zombie were released in early June.

Artist JIRO is already well known for his makeup skills that have transformed models from animals to aliens. In the latest installation to the Pure Smile “Art Mask,” line JIRO lives up to his name by making face masks that nobody would be afraid to answer the door with.

Even Japan’s favorite pear fairy Funassyi has made his mark on the designer face-mask trend, with a limited-edition Funassyi face mask included in one of Pure Smile’s face mask packs.

Of course, there is a built-in marketing value here. Once a private matter, the design mask begs for a selfie to be shared.

Pure Smile is even holding an Art Mask Photo Contest. Art mask enthusiasts can post their pictures to Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #アートマスクコンテスト, and Pure Smile will select the winners.

A photo posted by manami horie (@mana6314) on

A photo posted by Yui Sato (@ugauga_sato) on

What is the grand prize? Nothing other than a year’s supply of Pure Smile art masks!

Dominique Ansel caters to Tokyo’s (semi)sweet tooth with cronuts and s’more

June 19th, 2015 by


Dominique Ansel Bakery opens June 20, but expect extremely long queues because Ansel has brought to Japan not only his famed Cronut, but also a vast array of unusual and creative desserts.

Though Ansel has said that he’ll be toning down the sugar levels for the Japanese clientele, this is still definitely a must-do for people with a sweet tooth as we discovered on a recent press preview event.

The bakery’s celebrated Frozen S’more — huge chunks of toasted marshmallow-covered vanilla ice cream on sticks — and Cookie Shot — chocolate-lined cookie cups filled with milk — are being served alongside several Japan-only treats.

Among the exclusive items is the Paris Tokyo. Inspired by the circular metro sign and Japanese bamboo, Paris Tokyo’s small balls of vanilla cream and matcha ganache have a dab of passion-fruit jam and are sandwiched between rings of choux pastry and topped with white chocolate ginkgo leaves.

Then there’s the Maneki Neko Religieuse filled with vanilla cream and yuzu jam, and fashioned in the shape of a smiling lucky cat. If you’re looking for something a bit more mature, though, the traditional Japanese sweet-inspired Mont Blanc Wagashi is a chestnut-paste covered meringue that sits on a bed of gold leaf.

Most of the desserts may be rich and aimed at adults, but the space is for the fun-loving child in everyone. Even the bakery’s brightly lit interiors uses candy-floss colors in a mock Paris subway map that names Ansel’s creations in place of stations, while cute color-matching graphic works by Vahram Muratyan look down on customers from the staircase.

If you need a break from the sweet stuff, the second floor also serves light savory dishes, salads and drinks, and if you’re brave enough to take your kids there’s always the Mr. Roboto melon pan — it’s filled with Hokkaido milk cream, but it can’t be any worse than a regular Japanese melon pan pastry.

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