Archive for September, 2009

New strapless facemask may ruffle a few feathers

Friday, September 11th, 2009

main_facesealA common sight on subways every allergy season, face masks aren’t anything new in Japan, but just like the SARS virus and H1N1 influenza strain that create the global demand, the sale and styles of surgical masks continue to proliferate and diversify.

The latest version of the face protector (via Shibuya246) is the Viramask by Earth Pharmaceutical.  This beak-like design adheres directly to the face, so there are no elastic straps to go around the head or ears. This also means no air leaking in from the sides for a more assured protection from any and all kinds of airborne cooties.

At over ¥900 yen a pop, this kind of protection doesn’t come cheap, but the cost is offset by the joy you will give your friends and coworkers as they devise new ways to tease your new duck-like appearance:

  • Addressing you in Donald’s voice.
  • Leaving breadcrumbs on your desk.
  • Shouting “AFLAC!” every time you walk by.

Bonus: More excellent face mask fashions, and my favorite face mask-related article, from the fantastically dubious Weekly World News.

Sobering up

Friday, September 11th, 2009

Suntory Fine Zero

Over the next three months Toyota will be testing a system to prevent drivers from starting their engines when inebriated. The onboard breathalyzer system will test the alcohol content in the driver’s breath before they start the vehicle. If the alcohol levels are high enough, the ignition will either lock or the driver will be given a warning.

Since the system will be tested nationwide on trucks from Toyota’s subsidiary company, Hino Motors, it appears that Toyota is targeting companies who need to check on the sobriety of their employees. However, considering Japan’s toughened stance on driving under the influence, it might not be long before we see them in ordinary consumer vehicles. And granted, while this isn’t a first for onboard breathalyzer tech (Nissan showcased an even more sophisticated onboard breathalyzer prototype back in 2007), Toyota might be closer to getting the show on the road.

In addition to stiffer penalties for DUI in Japan, regulations were even extended last summer to punish citizens for riding their bicycles when under the influence. Offenders can now face imprisonment of up to five years and fines of ¥1 million. While police officers are generally rather relaxed about enforcing certain road safety laws, such as allowing cyclists to ride on the sidewalks, according to an account in The Japan Times, the law regarding drunk cyclists in Japan is being taken seriously by both citizens and police.

At least the major beer brewers are tweaking their product ranges to jibe with the changing climate. Suntory is due to launch their new non-alcohol beer, Suntory Fine Zero, on Sept. 29, and it will be lined up next to Asahi’s Point Zero, on shelves since Sept. 1, and Kirin Free, which debuted early this year.

Electric bicycles take charge

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

A supercharged ride

As America’s Cash for Clunkers program replaces old cars with new ones, some are discovering electric bicycles as an interesting alternative to gas stations, traffic jams and parking fees.

In Japan, battery-powered bikes sold more than scooters and motorcycles in 2008, with a 24% increase in sales since January. The most common explanation for this spike is environmental awareness – less gas equals more green – but I believe the housewives, senior citizens and businesses buying the lion’s share of these vehicles are doing so for reasons more practical than altruistic.

Continue reading about electric bicycles

A pinch of salt and a pound of chocolate

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

ChipChopCruising the shelves of our local conbini (convenience store) this week, we struck gold by purchasing a box of Meiji’s new “Chip! Chop.” Described on the box as being “chocolate and delicious salt, totally addictive chips,” we completely dug the unusual salt and choco combination. A thin filling of chocolate is sandwiched by two slender slices of salty chocolate biscuit. These were so moreish we finished the entire, rather large bag, in under 10 minutes and were left panting for more salted chocolate goodness and curious about where the concept for this divinely unhealthy snack came from.

It seems that the idea of combining salt and chocolate originated in Germany in the 1500s when the salty pretzel was first covered in chocolate. Chocolate pretzels have long been popular in the States with similar products appearing in Japan in recent years. Salted chocolate bars have also proved popular in Japan and seem to have been inspired by European bars such as Lindt’s “A Touch of Sea Salt.” Meiji brought out the “Salty Praline” bar last summer and chocolatier Ek Chuah sell a rather more up market version simply named “Salt Chocolate.”

“Chip Chop” is the first brand we’ve seen that combine salt with chocolate in its biscuit form but another strange “chip” combination caught our attention. Royce’ Fromage Blanc Potato Chip Chocolate is really testing the barriers of unusual taste combinations as well as the rules of punctuation. Sadly we aren’t really prepared to risk our digestions by sampling these oddities. The curious can read this account by a brave taste-tester at 3 Yen News.

Coffee shots and green lattes

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Georgia Jelly CoffeeIf you thought you’d grown out of doing jelly shots then think again, coffee jelly is making waves (or should it be wobbles) on the Japanese market. This summer Coke’s coffee brand Georgia released their version of coffee jelly in a can, joining a market that has grown by 5 to 10 per cent annually since 2004. This year Starbucks rereleased its coffee jelly frappuccino which enjoyed huge success when it debuted for a short period last summer. The drink combines iced coffee with coffee jelly. While Starbucks’ version uses fresh coffee beans, Yahoo Japan have posted a recipe for home-made coffee jelly that is a little less sophisticated, using only water, sugar, gelatin powder and instant coffee.

Meg Milk Matcha

Another strange combination gaining popularity is the matcha latte, a frothy concoction of matcha green tea and milk. This drink has been popular in cafes for some time now, but recently chilled convenience store versions have started popping up. Asahi launched their Fauchon product late last month which will be followed by MegMilk’s matcha latte on Sept. 29.

Purported to have been invented by Kouta Matsuda, owner of Tully’s coffee chain, the latte was born from experiments with matcha and an expresso machine. After enjoying some years of popularity in Japan, the drink took off in the States in 2006. Matcha is prized for its health benefits which include being rich in antioxidents and high in fiber.

Everyone wants a piece of Peko-chan

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Vulnerable, valuable: stolen Peko-chan statues have sold for up to ¥200,000

Vulnerable, valuable: stolen Peko-chan statues have sold for up to ¥200,000

OK, there is some debate among ourselves, but I am officially classifying the theft of Peko-chan statues as a trend.

Why? I state my case:

So what’s the big deal with these over-sized bobble-head dolls anyway? It could be the era that they represent. The Peko-chan dolls are set up at the front of Fujiya sweets shops, and as Mari of Watashi to Tokyo wrote in 2005, Fujiya pastries hold a lot of nostalgic value to those who came of age in the Showa Era. These are now the people with the most disposable income in Japan. Add to that a hearty collector culture and online auction sites and it’s easy to see how some unscrupulous thief may want to make a quick – and substantial – wad of yen (these dolls were going for up to ¥200,000).

At any rate, you have to pity the fools who are going to jail over these dolls. Can you imagine this yakuza tough-guy standing in the yard of the prison?

“What you in for?” ask the tatooed, bench-pressing criminals around him.

“Uh . . . kidnapping?”

Havens abound for mobile video-gamers

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

COURTESY OF ARMOR PROJECT/BIRD STUDIO/LEVEL-5/ SQUARE ENIX

A scene from Dragon Quest IX (Armort Project/Bird Studio/Level-5/Square Enix)

Nintendo’s DS sales got a boost in July with the release of Dragon Quest IX, with sales of the handheld device more than doubling the week of the release. If you’re not yet convinced that you want to buy the game but have a DS, a trial version is available to play for free at selected McDonald’s stores.

Though the restaurant chain already provides free access for gamers who want to play online while munching on a burger, Portable Game Cafe, which  opened a new branch in Ikebukuro in July, in addition to their existing Akihabara store, might have a slight edge on McD’s:  It’s not free, but for only ¥300 for 30 minutes you enjoy, comfy sofas (napping is allowed), access to comic books and, of course, wireless Internet access. There are unlimited soft drinks available, but if you want to work up more than a sugar buzz, customers are allowed to bring their own booze.

Similar deals can be found at a number of new portable game cafes that have begun to spring up, like at Game Space Kawasaki.

PSP players will want to go to the portable game cafes because McDonald’s doesn’t provide access for users of this handheld. Moreover, if you want real face-time with the gamers you’re playing, be they friends or strangers, the cafes are the place to be.

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Has Tokyo’s art-fair scene got the goods?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

A performance artist at 101TOKYO this past April

A performance artist uses his back as a canvas at 101TOKYO this past April

The current recession hasn’t made life easy for Tokyo’s art galleries. Spending habits of collectors are now even more difficult to predict, but the fertile art scene here continues its growth spurt, and with it comes an increasing number of art fairs, including a new photography-only fair opening this weekend. Whether Tokyo can support so many fairs is an open (and frequently asked) question, but quality work will always draw buyers. Tokyo can and should be the hub for the Asian market, and as the region bounces back economically, our fair city has been providing plenty of opportunities to peruse and purchase art.

(more…)

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