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Hitting the mark at the Miraikan’s ninja exhibition

July 16th, 2016 by

By Jon Ginsburg

Thanks in large part to some teenage turtles and video game culture, ninja are no long hidden in the shadows and known worldwide. The nimble masters of stealth and subterfuge are also experiencing a bit of a comeback in their homeland.

The ninja came into the spotlight at the Group of Seven summit, which was held in Mie Prefecture in May. Iga, a city in Mie that also happens to be “the hometown of ninja,” pounced on the promotional opportunity and had the troupe Iga-Ninja Group Ashura showcase ninja skills and explain their tools and techniques for the summit’s visitors.

Also in 2016, Aichi Prefecture advertised that it would be hiring ninja to promote tourism, as well as its historic Nagoya Castle. No doubt inspired by the upcoming tourism bonanza, culminating with the 2020 Olympics, this campaign will feature ninja performing acrobatic stunts, using their signature shuriken throwing stars and, of course, posing for pictures with tourists.

For the next three months, Tokyo residents and tourists alike can get the full ninja experience at Odaiba’s Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. On July 2, their latest special exhibition — “The Ninja: Who Were They?” — opened to the public.

Three uniquely constructed fire arrows sit in one of the exhibition’s multiple a display cases. Despite its misleading name, fire arrows were actually the world’s first rockets.

Three uniquely constructed fire arrows sit in one of the exhibition’s multiple a display cases. Despite its misleading name, fire arrows were actually the world’s first rockets. (Jon Ginsburg)

On the media preview day, I had a chance to experience it firsthand. Before venturing into the show’s interactive areas, I perused the historical displays and ninja-related artifacts near the entrance. These ranged from different types of shuriken (there are a variety of kinds, believe it or not) to other weapons and tools of the trade, including grapples, iron claws and fire arrows, to name just a few.

The exhibition also contains installations that provide insight into the ninja ways of life and explain survival strategies, such as methods of concealment and secret codes.

What sets this exhibition apart is its interactive component. Visitors — be they children or adults — can test their skills to determine whether or not they have what it takes to be a ninja.

The tiptoe challenge shows no mercy! Hearts sink as the wailing of sirens stationed on either side of the wooden floor force challengers to return to the starting line.

The tiptoe challenge shows no mercy! Hearts sink as the wailing of sirens stationed on either side of the wooden floor force challengers to return to the starting line. (Jon Ginsburg)

The first exercise I tried consisted of jumping over boxes representing sunflowers. Naturally, no self-respecting ninja would leave bent flowers in his wake. While it sounds easy, it’s not merely a matter of jumping high. You have to use your head.

My confidence soared after this first task. I thought I was well on my way to becoming a ninja . . . until I reached the dreaded tiptoe challenge. Participants must silently tiptoe across a wooden floor without triggering sensors that set off alarms. This challenge was easily the most frustrating. My advice to future challengers is to stay on your toes, and don’t let your heels hit the floor.

The shuriken target practice proved to be a fan-favorite among the exhibition’s younger visitors. Kids perfected their throwing accuracy by tossing countless ninja stars at the wall’s illuminated bullseyes.

The shuriken target practice proved to be a fan-favorite among the exhibition’s younger visitors. Kids perfected their throwing accuracy by tossing countless ninja stars at the wall’s illuminated bullseyes. (Jon Ginsburg)

I took another beating at the shuriken target wall. Since throwing accuracy is one of my athletic strengths, I assumed that I would excel at this challenge. Unfortunately, my overconfidence proved to be my downfall. Maybe it was my one-out-of-five hit rate, or maybe it was seeing children half my size hitting the targets more often, but I definitely came up small during this task.

If, as I did, you discover that you lack the right stuff to become a ninja, there are two photo opportunities that might make you feel better. You can attach your head to an animated figure’s body, via the old face-in-photo-wall trick, or visit a light display that shows your digital ninja silhouette. Strike a pose, and the silhouette may even grow or multiply.

“The Ninja: Who Were They?” is an ideal exhibition for those seeking a more interactive museum experience. The history of these Japanese espionage experts is fascinating, but what’s not to love about a show that tests your mad ninja skills?

See City Guide article on “The Ninja: Who Were They?” for details.

G-strings on the menu at Amrita’s naked dining pop-up

June 10th, 2016 by

Following in the shoeless footsteps of restaurants in London and Melbourne, the pop-up Amrita has a simple premise: diners must be naked before they are seated. Well, almost naked. Unlike other such pop-ups, guests in Tokyo will be provided with “paper underwear.” Whether this fig leaf is to satisfy patrons’ modesty or satisfy local hygiene laws is yet to be seen.

It’s also worth mentioning that Amrita isn’t the first restaurant made for the senses. Dark Dinner events involved blindfolded patrons trying food and having no idea what they are eating. But where Dark Dinner makes you dine blind, Amrita is truly an eyeful.

Amrita's website claims that it's importing

Amrita’s website claims that it’s importing “top class” male dancers for its pop-up event.

There are a couple of other rules as well. No phones or cameras, no tattoos (oh, Japan), and people can’t be “15 kg overweight.” Exactly what is the tipping point on the scale though is unclear. So yes, Amrita wants to celebrate the human body — as long as the body looks in shape. Oh, and nobody over 60 years old, please.

The restaurant’s website says that Amrita wants guests to have an au naturel experience where they can focus on the food, which happens to be organic, and nothing else — except maybe the waiters. According the event’s website, the pop-up is bringing in “top class” male dancers, dressed only in G-strings, who will be serving up meals and muscles.

If naked dining doesn’t seem intimidating, the prices may shock you. There are several different meals ranging from ¥12,000-80,000. Sadly for those emperors with no clothes, the ¥80K seats are all sold out during its three-day run from July 29-31. No details on what the top-drawer plans entail, however.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, Amrita’s website breaks down the process in eight simple steps, liberally translated here:

1. Show up, your heart pounding
2. ID check (making sure you are over 18 but under 60)
3. Strip — but don’t forget the paper undies
4. Hand over all cameras and cell phones
5. Strut to your table
6. Eat, or that is try to eat
7. Change back into your clothes
8. Go back into the sad, clothed world

AKB48 spends summer vacation at USJ

June 10th, 2016 by

Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan is getting a new attraction this summer. It’s not a new roller coaster — instead it’s the members of everyone’s favorite J-pop cluster, AKB48.

During a special show on June 2 at USJ, the band announced that certain members will be performing not for one day, not for two days, but for over a month straight.

Visitors will be able to see the girls in the flesh from July 21 through Sept. 4, just in time for summer vacation for students. (No word on whether or not middle-age salarymen will be able to take off work to cheer on their favorite members.)

The daily show will feature 16 girls from its gaggle of singers, including Mayu Watanabe and Haruna Kojima, as they form the limited-time only “USJ48.” If that isn’t enough, concerts will also share the stage with members from sister groups from around Japan, including NMB48, HKT48 and NGT48.

Make sure to line up early this summer as groups of fans will surely make the trip from Akihabara to Osaka.

Following the ‘Girls’ to Japan

June 3rd, 2016 by

Two episodes of the fifth season of HBO’s hit show “Girls” turned its lens to Japan. While the show focuses on four millennials trying to make it in New York, season five takes plucky Shoshanna Shapiro out of the Big Apple and sends her to Tokyo for a new marketing position.

Here, she experiences both real and surreal aspects of life in Japan. At times, her itinerary feels like Buzzfeed clickbait (think “10 crayzee things to do in Tokyo!”), including highlights such as feet-eating fish, cat cafes and S&M bars. In its defense, the show also highlights normal points of life in Japan, including buying onigiri snacks for work, slurping ramen after drinks and chilling at an urban hot spring with friends.

And even Shoshanna, who is essentially kawaii incarnate, can get bogged down by the realities of expat life in Tokyo. She’s not exactly fluent in Japanese, her friends constantly remind her about her foreigner status and she has to deal with cultural differences in the dating scene.

But during her stay in Japan, Shoshanna visits a variety of classic tourist spots and experiences traditional pastimes. Now that season five is finally airing in Japan on Star Channel, we’ve mapped out her time abroad so you can see where the Tokyo adventures took place.

Mitaka house


Since Shoshanna is the quirkiest character on the show, it’s only natural that she stays in one of the quirkiest condos complexes in Japan, titled “Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in Memory of Helen Keller.

Located in Mitaka, less than an hour from inner Tokyo, Shusaku Arakawa’s famous complex features a brightly colored facade and ball-shaped rooms. The architect has said he designed the building, which was completed in 2005, to keep tenants alert and forestall the inevitable: death.

Shibuya Crossing


This sight will be familiar to anyone who has been to Tokyo, and even those who haven’t.

Millions of people brave the Shibuya “scramble crossing” every year. Surrounded by giant video billboards evoking scenes out of “Blade Runner,” the crossing is the city’s top selfie spot. Naturally, Shosh, wearing Hello Kitty headphones, navigates the five-way intersection with aplomb.

Taketori-no-Yu Spa


Shoshanna takes like a fish to water by embracing Japan’s bathing tradition. This “super sento” in the Tokyo suburb of Tama, which has giant baths, massages and dining halls, is not exactly your typical neighborhood bath.


For Shoshanna’s second visit, she and her former boss Abigail (played by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Aidy Bryant) indulge in “Doctor Fish” foot baths, where little fish actually nibble the dead skin on your feet (for ¥500). Actress Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna) said that “it doesn’t just tickle, it kinda really hurts.”

Moon Romantic


Shoshanna makes her move on shy work colleague Yoshi at the aptly named Moon Romantic (青山 月見ル君想フ) while her and her friends see the Japanese band Flip.

The venue features a variety of performers throughout the year, ranging from piano players to up-and-coming rock stars. Unlike the more famous and slightly grungier “live houses” in the city, Moon Romantic, located in the up-market Minami Aoyama, is decidedly more clean-cut.

Trump Room


Shoshanna gets a first-hand taste of S&M at Shibuya’s Trump Room, a nexus for trendy scenesters that boasts dozens of chintzy chandeliers and mirrors.

As the bar has a revolving door of DJs and themed nights, don’t show up looking for latex-clad dominatrixes on any night of the week.

Golden Gai


After a long day, Shoshanna and her gal pals go out for drinks in a small hole-in-the-wall izakaya in what looks like the Golden Gai area, a sliver of Shinjuku that is jam-packed with tiny bars and has been a magnet for tipplers since the 1960s.

Pro tip: Most places have only a few counter seats each, so don’t bring a large group of friends along for your pub crawl.

Takeshita Dori


One location that should be obvious to any visitor of Japan is Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori, where Shoshanna takes Abigail on a trek through what she calls “Katy Perry’s vagina.”

The street’s pink-centric fashion shops and creperies attract hordes of young people and tourists.

Pro tip: If you’re allergic to crowds, squeals and pink, steer clear.

Temari no Ouchi Cat Cafe


After being laid off from her marketing job, Shoshanna does the responsible thing and becomes an assistant manager at Temari no Ouchi Cat Cafe.

Located in Kichijoi, this cat cafe is one of the most elaborate in the city with its Ghibli-like decor. And while other cat cafes simply serve tea or coffee, Temari no Ouchi has full meal sets along with cat-shaped cookies.

Afuri Ramen Ebisu


If the ramen at Afuri looked delicious, the good news is that you can go ahead and try it yourself.

Not your average fat-laden ramen, the noodles here are on the lighter end of the spectrum. The signature bowl of yuzu shio ramen is not be missed. You can slurp on Afuri’s ramen at seven locations, but we’re impressed that Shoshanna chose the flagship shop in Ebisu.

Nishi Shinjuku

Shoshanna’s final moments in Japan have her walking in the early morning hours through Nishi Shinjuku.


The street has all of the things you’d expect from a jaunt through Tokyo, except people.

And if you want to peer even further behind the camera, you can view these behind-the-scenes videos the first Japan episode and the second Japan episode of “Girls.”

Bonus: Are you jealous of Shoshanna’s talking alarm clock? Well, you can now buy it on Amazon.

Okonomiyaki gives you nutrients you need!

May 4th, 2016 by

“Pharmacists” on call at Fast Food Aid (Mio Yamada photos)

Recent visitors to Cat Street near Harajuku might have noticed a curious little pop-up giving away bottles of pills.

The Fast Food Aid popup in Harajuku

The Fast Food Aid popup in Harajuku

A neon red cross glowed behind the counter while two women in white lab coats showed customers scientific-looking charts on clipboards.

Hangover cure after a night out? Not exactly.

The sign outside read Fast Food Aid. Panels inside explained the concept: The customer hands over a fast-food restaurant receipt and, in return, receives a bottle of food supplements customized to replace the nutrients missing from that meal … for free.

Public service? Nah.

Fast Food Aid turns out to be part of a clever marketing campaign for a chain of restaurants specializing in the okonomiyaki savory pancake.

Dohtonbori is promoting a new restaurant opening in Hiroo (on May 26) by cheekily spelling it out: The healthy ingredients in Dohtonbori’s healthy okonomiyaki have all the nutrients you need.

The campaign is part of Dohtonbori’s recent makeover, which includes a new emoji-like logo and “Tasty-healthy” slogan. It is also announced the chain’s new policy of only using domestically grown vegetables by issuing a public apology for “not having done so earlier.”

The Fast Food Aid popup ends on May 4, but you can always go to any of the Dohtonbori stores later for a fix.

The deal: One fast-food receipt gets you a bottle of supplements.

The deal: One fast-food receipt gets you a bottle of supplements.

Rush of new gravity wave products set to flood the market

April 1st, 2016 by

With the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves in February, and the interest by Japanese physicists in neutrinos, consumers have become increasingly concerned over the possible adverse effects of these phenomena on their health.

Feeling a bit heavy? GW Nuke might be the ticket.

Feeling a bit heavy? GW Nuke might be the ticket.

In case you’re out of the loop, neutrinos are those elusive massless chargeless subatomic particles whose presence is only made apparent through the use of sophisticated detection devices.

Japan’s food and beverage manufacturers have been quick to seek new marketing opportunities. On March 28, Aomori-based Nandemo Beverage Co., Ltd. released its new anti-GW drink, “G-W Nuke” (pronounced “NOO-kay”).

“Our customers are aware that gravitational waves (GW) can affect their body weight,” Hiroshi Daido, marketing manager at Nandemo, pointed out. “These gravitational irregularities can affect the body’s metabolism. So we developed our anti-GW drink to neutralize the waves’ effects.”

Packaged in a specially designed container composed of a composite material — the details of which are a corporate secret — a 240 ml bottle of “GW Nuke” will retail for ¥980.

“Those concerned that gravitational waves may be affecting their weight should consume at least three bottles daily,” Daido recommends.

To Makkana Usoda, head of Nandemo’s R&D laboratory, the existence of gravitational waves wasn’t exactly news.

“It seems our researchers actually detected them in the early 1930s,” he said. “In fact, we discovered their lab notes stuffed in the back of a filing cabinet just one day after NASA announced their results.

Apparently the company couldn’t find any practical applications for them at that time. But now of course we’re in a far better position to exploit their commercial possibilities.”

For those disturbed by reports of neutrinos and “dark matter,” Muriyari Productions of Gifu, the same prefecture where Japan’s neutrino detection experiment has been ongoing, has succeeded in producing a “Light Shield.” While similar in appearance to a conventional umbrella, Muriyari has applied a special surface coating that it claims will protects users from the harmful effects of neutrinos while also repelling dark matter. The shield is offered in small, medium and large sizes and in a variety of patterns, with prices starting at ¥45,000 (consumption tax extra).

As science achieves a better understanding of the effects of gravitational waves and neutrinos on humans, the Japanese government is pinning hopes on a new export boom spurred by breakthroughs in this field.

A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked, “This may very well mark the turning point for Japan to emerge from its prolonged recession, vindicating the principles of ‘Abenomics’ and forming the ‘fourth arrow’ in the revitalization of the economy.”

The onsen odyssey of the Japanese snow monkey

March 30th, 2016 by

What would lure a monkey away from his kingdom in the snowcapped mountains and into the concrete jungle of Tokyo? A good soak, of course.

That’s the premise of new cinematic commercial from Mitsubishi Estate in which we see a monkey protagonist leaving the natural hot springs of the country with only his wash bucket in hand. He catches a ride on a train to eventually emerge in Japan’s capital and reach his final destination: Tokyo Station. After asking for directions, our hot spring hero finally arrives at Otemachi Onsen.

This wild macaque (called nihonzaru in Japanese) is one of the world-famous monkeys that are known to take dips in natural hot springs in Nagano Prefecture during the winter. The Jigokudani Monkey Park, located in Yamanouchi valley, has become a popular tourist spot where visitors can watch these snow monkeys bathe in peace and warmth.

If the new Tokyo onsen can drive this little guy in all the way from Nagano, then it must be good. The Otemachi Onsen isn’t any regular urban bathhouse — Mitsubishi Estate was actually able to tap into natural hot spring water right in the middle of the city on a plot of land meant to be a hotel and office complex.

The commercial’s scenario is very reminiscent of the classic 1980s Sony Walkman spot in which a monkey enjoys the sonic possibilities of the then “high-tech” cassette player. It seems that a monkey’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. Seeing as 2016 is, according to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Monkey, the timing couldn’t be better.

Marketing push for Hokkaido Shinkansen blasts off

March 24th, 2016 by

Some of the new items promoting the Hokkaido Shinkansen.

Some of the new items promoting the Hokkaido Shinkansen.

Japan’s famous shinkansen bullet train is known around the world for its speed, efficiency and safety. Currently, people in Tokyo can take a bullet train all the way to Fukuoka on Kyushu island or to Aomori, at the northern tip of Honshu. But now the high-speed train network is taking it to the next level by extending its reach to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, letting consumers go from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in about four hours.

As Japan gets ready for the start of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen on March 26, many companies are launching marketing tie-ups — with some odd results. Here are a few of the campaigns on the fast track.

Tomix train set

New train toys modeled after the Series H5 Hayabusa? No brainer.

Tomix’s set comes with all 10 cars, and the interior can even be lit up. If you’d like to buy it outside of Japan, there are sets being sold on eBay.

Suntory beer

One of the best parts about riding bullet trains in Japan is being able to eat food on public transportation without judgment — huzzah! Ekiben, or train lunch boxes, are a given. Like a beer with that? No problem.

Let the conductor be the designated driver as you can pop a can or three of Suntory’s beer — same taste, new design. If beer is not your thing, Co-op Gurana is repackaging its soda with the Hayabusa train as well.

Lotteria meal

Fast food chain Lotteria is famous for creating food that could kill you, but this time they’re putting it inside a cute Hayabusa box.

A Shinjuku branch is selling meals wrapped up in the Hokkaido Shinkansen train that comes with a rib sandwich, fries and a drink. The meal won’t cost as much as a train ticket though as it’s only ¥1,000 and is available until May 31.

Calbee potato chips

Snack king Calbee is also taking a bite out of the shinkansen commotion with a line of bullet Hokkaido-inspired chips.

Calbee has three new flavors for potato chip fans — onion and salt, seaweed and mentaiko, and garlic and mayonnaise. The company has never shied away from strange new flavors, including its tuna-corn-curry flavor. If you can’t stop eating these addictive chips, you can always keep the bag shut with a Hayabusa stapler.

Acecook Ramen

It may take four hours to get to Hakodate, but it will only take a few minutes to warm up Acecook’s newest ramen.

The two instant noodles come in salt or soy flavors. The packaging also features the official Hokkaido Shinkansen mascot, Dokodemo Yuki-chan (Anywhere Snow-chan).

McDonald’s pie

The only thing faster than the Hokkaido Shinkansen is the food at McDonald’s. The venerable chain is releasing a line of sweets with nods to Hokkaido’s farming and dairy culture.

For a limited time, customers can buy its Hokkaido Milk Pie, a fluffy croissant filled with gooey goodness. It’ll also be packaged in a signature purple color to match the stripes on the Hayabusa train.

Sapporo Snow Festival

And bringing this marketing blitz back to where Hokkaido, this year’s Sapporo Snow Festival was decked out in ads featuring the new shinkansen line. There was even a huge snow sculpture shaped like a Hayabusa train that was lit up at night.

As the Hokkaido Shinkansen will be extended from Shin-Hakodate to Sapporo Station in 2030, the Sapporo Snow Festival — and Hokkaido itself — is bound to get a jump in tourists as more and more people head north.


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