Archive for August, 2009

Latin lovers in Japan

Monday, August 31st, 2009

EKD_625

I’m standing in Treasure Chest, a watering hole deep in the bowels of Shibuya. An old-school Jamaican-style sound system blasts cumbia and rock-en-Español while patrons trickle in, buy drinks and start shaking handmade rattles to the beat. In an hour or so, the band EKD (above) will set up behind the bar and play a free set of Latin-inflected surf-rock. They are relatively unknown so far, but if Japanese tastes continue on the same trajectory, EKD will be playing much larger venues soon enough.

Whether it be salsa, flamenco, samba or mambo, the Latin musical spectrum has a long and storied history in Japan, but in recent years more eclectic and subversive sounds have gained traction with the twentysomething set. These bands frequently mix traditional musical elements with punk ethos or political predilections. Sometimes both.

Continue reading about Latin music in Japan →

To instant noodles, we slurp-salute you

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Instant noodlesThis week we celebrate the anniversary of the instant noodle in Japan, which was first introduced on Aug. 25, 1958. Much loved by students on a budget, most instant noodles take only 3 minutes to prepare once you’ve added some hot water. Below are some recommendations for next time you’re in the convenience store.

  • The original and the best, Nissin’s instant cook Chicken Ramen. These were invented by Momofuku Ando in response to post-war food shortages. The noodles were seasoned, fried and then dehydrated before being packaged into bricks. They were called magic noodles because of their miraculous transformation into real food. (There is a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea” where Ponyo is totally gobsmacked watching instant noodles being made for the first time.) Traditionally a raw egg is cracked into the finished mixture and Nissin’s adverts for Chicken Ramen still show the meal being prepared this way.
  • Robot fans might want to get their mitts on these Gundam Cup Noodles that come with a free Gundam figure. Nissin is still the biggest player in the instant noodle market with their Cup Noodle range. Ando also invented the Styrofoam cup which is used to this day.
  • So cute: Q-cup do a range of instant noodles that have naruto (small fish cakes which traditionally have a swirl in them) with really cute pig faces on them. They’re worth trying just for the kawaii (cute) factor.
  • Cup Noodle has also cornered the market on weird flavors, none stranger, in my opinion, than the cheese curry flavor. Try it at your peril.
  • My last choice is a personal favorite. There aren’t very many spicy cup noodle flavors in Japan, but if you like chillis this will blow your socks off. Ace Cook’s Tantanmen is not only packed with chillis but it also has a special spicy sauce to add too.

Ramen otaku already know this … but if you want to learn about instant noodles visit the Momofuku Ando instant noodle museum in Osaka.

Say you’ll build it (and they will come)

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Architect Tokyo 2009

One prominent example of Tokyo’s creative worlds continuing to blend is the growing number of contemporary art spaces holding architecture exhibits. Tokyo Opera City Gallery had their Jean Nouvel exhibit, the Mori Museum and the National Museum of Western Art have done well with Le Corbusier, and now we have “Architect Tokyo 2009,” with some of Japan’s best contemporary galleries participating.

Crossovers like this shouldn’t be surprising. Architecture and contemporary art share more than a few similarities. But what has some gallerists’ attention is just how popular these exhibits really are. And as Edan Corkill wrote last year, architecture can be a huge draw.

This seems to go double for men. Wandering through Tomio Koyama Gallery’s “Before Architecture, After Architecture” exhibition last weekend (detail of a mock-up pictured above), I noticed that nearly everyone viewing the video installation and perusing the dozens of photographs and mock-ups was male. What does that say about gender and the nature of creative minds? Build your own theory.

Matches made on the green

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Members of the social group Gaijin Golfers get in some putting practice on the manicured greens of the Windsor Park Golf and Country Club in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Edan Corkill photo)

Members of the social group Gaijin Golfers get in some putting practice on the manicured greens of the Windsor Park Golf and Country Club in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Edan Corkill photo)

No, this isn’t a kind of confidence trick, but rather a new trend in the dating scene. An amalgam of the words golf (gorufu) and gokon (group dating), the gorukon scene is a natural progression from the recent craze for golf bars, where you go to play a virtual round of golf while enjoying a drink. They became popular last year with the invention of a simulated software system that mimics the experience of playing out on the links.

A gorukon date would typically involve a group of single men and women, evenly matched in numbers, if not by their golfing handicap, meeting up at a golf bar to see if they can make a match. Gokon is a group blind date in which some of those attending are mutual friends, with liberal amounts of alcohol taking some of the awkwardness out of the experience. Typically people might play drinking games to ease their embarrassment, playing golf therefore comes in handy as a good conversation starter, as well as taking away the necessity of drinking heavily.

Continue reading about gorukon →

Privacy you can dance to

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

miniscule_250

Kev of Miniscule of Sound at the Fuji Rock Festival this year.

To live in urban Japan requires a certain tolerance for crowds and an independence from personal space. The same can be said for big music festivals like the Fuji Rock Festival and Summer Sonic. Sure, there’s room to move — maybe even dance — but if you want to see DJs and rock stars up close, then say goodbye to breathing room.

This year both fests offered numerous ways to escape the humanity. Both now have far-flung stages guaranteed to be more sparsely populated — Summer Sonic with the Beach and Riverside Stages, and Fujirock with the Cafe de Paris and Stoned Circle venues — but my favorite oases of privacy (however conceptual) were Summer Sonic’s Silent Disco and Fuji Rock’s Miniscule of Sound.

Silent Disco is set up like a club, except that everyone wears wireless headphones, so there’s no thumping bass upon arrival — just people jumping around, singing along and occasionally grunting. Can you guess what song these people are listening to? What was most interesting to me was that there were two DJs playing simultaneously, so there wasn’t a uniform beat everyone was dancing to. This clip may be the best example.

The Miniscule of Sound is a club, too. The smallest club in the world, in fact. The dance floor is only 2 sq. meters and about the size of a walk-in closet, but it has a doorman, manager cloakroom, smoke machine and dedicated DJ. And in typical club fashion, VIPs get past the velvet rope first, to the chagrin of those waiting in line. That didn’t seem to sway the crowds at Fuji Rock, who waited up to an hour to get in.

The lengths we go to for a moment alone.

Fell in love with a Gypsy

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Gogol Bordello

The gypsies are coming!

Nothing new actually. Gypsy bands have been touring Japan for years, but this summer may mark a watershed moment since two of the most talked-about acts at Japan’s major music festivals were Roma music progenitors: Sweden’s Räfven at Fujirock and New York’s Gogol Bordello at Summer Sonic.

Both are big bands (8 or 9 people onstage) with a big sound. And now, possibly a big impact. Creating a new Fujirock record, Räfven performed eight times at the festival, playing everywhere from the massive Red Marquee stage to the Mokudoutei, a small wooden platform set up along a boardwalk through the forest. Word spread over the weekend (their CD was one of the fest’s highest-selling), and by their final shows, crowds had grown massive . . . and rowdy. Ever seen 200 Japanese kids mosh to accordions and violins? It’s magnificent.

Continue reading about gypsy music in Japan →

Recession wedding (bring your own champagne?)

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Yoyogi Park wedding

Last weekend I took part in a good friend’s wedding. Rather than a shrine or church, he and his bride-to-be chose Yoyogi Park for their nuptials. The simple ceremony surrounded by friends got me wondering about Japan’s wedding industry, a massive money-making machine that feeds off tradition and class distinctions that in past years few questioned. Was my friend’s stripped-down ceremony indicative of a movement spurred on by the recession, or was Japan’s “Marital Industrial Complex” unaffected by the economy?
It turns out that weddings are considered by many to be one of the few recession-proof
industries here. Even movie theaters and the yakuza want in on the action. Hiroshi Nagasaki at Livedoor writes that although marriages are happening less frequently and later in life, the actual price tag for a wedding is going up. Even the average wedding dress price rose by 18%. And the industry could grow even stronger if same-sex couples were legalized here, argues Luxist.

While marriage rates are definitively lower than a decade ago, questions about interest in marriage send off mixed signals. What Japan Thinks shows young Japanese women showing little interest, but there are plenty of sources stating clearly that “kon-katsu” (marriage hunting) is alive and on the rise. Ameba News considers matchmaker agencies to be another recession-proof industry, right up there with designer bag rental services, where office ladies who can’t actually afford that Louis Vuitton can still flaunt one at the next wedding they attend.

Adamu at Mutant Frog points to pricey weddings exposing Japan’s growing economic disparity, but that this cost is offset by parental support and the cash gifts your guests are obligated to bring. Those without a large network of friends and family may be out of luck, especially those with a bun already in the oven (“shotgun marriages” count for at least a quarter of all new marriages, according to J-cast).

I’m still looking into Japanese “DIY” weddings and welcome your input. When my wife and I hear of our friend’s wedding expenses, we tend to measure the price in terms of months in Thailand (as in “Do you know how many months we could spend in Thailand for that amount of money?”).? Reading Phil Brasor’s recent analysis on Naomi Kawashima’s wedding last month had us fantasizing about winter homes in Krabi and Chiang Mai, with a driver, live-in help and a personal masseuse. Economic disparity indeed.

Beetle mania

Monday, August 10th, 2009

beetle1Many children are infected by beetle mania during the summer holidays, hunting in the nation’s parks armed with insect nets and green plastic cages. This summer adult fans can take their passion for these six-legged critters to even greater lengths by purchasing their very own pair of Micro Stag Beetles for a whopping ¥10,000. Smaller than a grain of rice, these miniaturized plastic male and female models are only 2.6 mm long. Though models are incredibly detailed and stand up to scrutiny under a microscope, you may be asking yourself what a sane adult would prize such an item. (Via Tokyo Walker.)

The real live stag beetles, with their powerful front mandibles, are particularly suited to exciting insect fights and a large one might even set you back as much as ¥7,500 from an online dealer. There are many Web sites devoted to insect fights, such as Japanese Bug Fights in English and World’s Strongest Insect King Playoffs in Japanese.

Those worried about animal cruelty should note that the end of a stag beetle fight is usually signaled when a beetle is flipped on his back or pushed out of the fighting arena. Only male beetles fight and can be encouraged to do so by a specially built machine that emits the mating call of a female beetle.

While the plastic miniaturized version may not be able to be a contender in a tournament, its owner will have the satisfaction in knowing that it’ll be around a little longer than its live counterpart which, once hatched into an adult, rarely survives beyond the summer months.

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