Archive for November, 2009

A virtual page-turner on the iPhone

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Now this is a fantastic idea. The Japanese firm Mobile Art Lab has turned the iPhone into an interactive children’s book with what they’re calling the PhoneBook.

This is not the first iPhone-related program aimed at your toddler – you could spend hours looking through all the child-related applications available on iTunes – but this approach, with its book-like accessory framing the touchscreen, is an idea that is bound to catch on. Mobile Art Lab has stated that these kind of applications are not limited to children’s books, but could also be utilized in other types of media such as catalogs and brochures. Graphic novels and manga could easily integrate this technology as well, but the interactive potential makes this an ideal learning tool.

Next up, Dr. Seuss: Is there an app for that?

Japanese camera makers reassess size and simplicity

Friday, November 13th, 2009

camera_pulse

Depending on your perspective, the digital camera market is either mind-bogglingly fascinating or mind-numbingly boring. Every day, legions of dedicated shutterbugs pore over spec sheets and review sites, blogging breathlessly about the latest features and innovations, while almost everyone else yawns at camera makers’ constant leapfrogging and just wants to aim and fire.

Nikon, Canon and other major Japanese players have long been locked in a struggle for supremacy in both the D-SLR and point-and-shoot realm, but as the holiday shopping season draws closer the imaging market is changing in significant ways. One of the most interesting trends is the growing middle ground between these two main categories.

Olympus and Panasonic have both released hybrid models using their Micro Four-Thirds system to bridge the gap between the versatility and image quality of D-SLRs with the convenient size of a pocket camera. Both utilize a larger sensor than their point-and-shoot brethren while also offering the option to switch lenses.

This week Ricoh entered the ring with a small unit that offers detachable lens-and-sensor units that load like game cartridges. None of these cameras can boast a D-SLR’s image quality or ability to shoot action or low-light, but they’re close enough that, for some users, the ability to shove it in your jacket outweighs the extra depth, sharpness and action-stopping abilities of their larger cousins.

Continue reading about four-thirds cameras →

Maywa Denki’s Otamatone wiggles off the shelves

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Maywa Denki’s toy musical instrument, the Otamatone, was released for over the counter sale at Tokyu Hands Ginza last Saturday and promptly sold out by Monday. Meiwa Denki’s inventive and off-the-wall toys and art performances have been hugely popular both in Japan and the West for a long time now and new products tend to be pounced on by eager customers.

I was lucky enough on Monday to catch a performance that included rendition of “Greensleeves” on the Otamatone (see video above) at O’Crest in Shibuya as part of Japan Music Week. The Otamatone, whose names plays on the Japanese words for “tadpole” and “sound,” is a kind of electronic recorder that emits a sound when you blow through it and squeeze the cheeks of the cute character at the tube’s base.

Continue reading about Maywa Denki →

Spirited away by tunes at the onsen

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

The festival is located in an onsen in Nagano

The venue for Onsen Ongaku Vol. 1

Continuing the trend of music in unusual venues, This weekend sees the world’s very first hot springs music festival launched. Onsen Ongaku Vol. 1 is organized by the Naturally Gushing ambient works project and held in Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture. The event runs from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday and the headliner will be dance music act De De Mouse who samples Mongolian vocals on top of sweet electro-pop keyboards. Other acts include Metal Mouse, Asa-Chang, Yoko Nagisa and Snow Effect. Due to the confined space, attendance is capped at 300,  but despite that, tickets cost a rather reasonable ¥6,500.

Adding to the magical and unusual atmosphere is the fact that the building the event is held in is famous for being one of the onsen that inspired the bathhouse in “Spirited Away.” Visitors can’t camp, but there are a number of hotels and inns available to stay in in the town. The best way to get there is by car though the hotel can be reached via 5-min. taxi ride from the nearest station. The place is also famous for its snow monkeys who come to bathe in the onsen, though who knows if the ambient tunes will attract or repel them.

If you can’t make it out to Nagano, you might compromise by attending one of the upcoming Furo Rocks events in Kichijoji,  Tokyo. Not held at a natural spring but in a sento (public bathhouse), the acoustics in the tiled venue are wild as is the awesome painting of Mount Fuji which provides a backdrop for the temporary stage.

There are upcoming events on the Nov. 5 (acoustic and electric night) and on Dec. 10, when Tokyo based Jim O’Rourke will rock the bath. Unfortunately, unlike at Onsen Ongaku, you can’t take a bath at Furo Rocks, though apparently they have a great massage chair and you can wave around your yellow plastic wash tubs to the music. People attending Onsen Ongaku, however, are reminded not to forget their towels.

Cheap vino continues to flow in Japan

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

Yosemite Road, 7-11's new discount wine label

Yosemite Road, 7-11's new discount wine label

The recession continues to affect the Japanese wine market in interesting ways. As we have noted in our pages earlier this year, cheap wine is apparently quite tasty in tough times, and now it seems the market for low-rent sommeliers will increase. One indication is that 7-11 wants in on the action. Starting this month, both American and Japanese 7-11 outlets will be selling their own lines of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon under the Yosemite Road label. At around ¥600 a bottle, that’s hard to beat.

Even Ginza, home to much of Japan’s luxury industry and a competitive wine-bar market, has seen a new cost-cutting measure. The wine bar GOSS, near the flagship Matsuya Department store in the heart of the shopping district, has installed wine vending machines as a way to cut down on labor costs and still provide premium vino to their patrons.

This is all happening just as the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau arrive in Japan. With French imports dropping an estimated 30% from 2008, 7-11 is betting that convenience truly is the ultimate luxury.

Who let the dog boom get out of control?

Monday, November 9th, 2009

dogjacket

Japan’s pet population has grown by over 9 million in the last 10 years. Cats figure into the equation, but it’s the present “dog boom” that gets the most attention, with the spotlight shining on more and more services available for Japan’s canine lovers. In addition to clothing lines and custom-made birthday cakes, dog owners can now keep a memento of their deceased four-legged friend after their death, in what now marks a complete cradle-to-grave cycle.

What’s not mentioned as frequently is how the grave-end of this cycle presents itself to many unwanted pets. Some estimates show that over 300,000 dogs a year are now being put down around the country. There is no simple answer as to why so many pets are abandoned, or even bought in the first place, although it has been argued that Japan’s love of cute and the difficulties of raising children play a role.

Continue reading about the pet boom →

Meiji University celebrates manga heritage

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Manga has long been viewed as a throwaway art form

Manga has long been viewed as a throwaway art form

Though former Prime Minister Taro Aso’s ambitious plan for a national media arts center to promote manga and anime has been scrapped by the incumbent government, fans of the art form will welcome the news that the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library of Manga and Subcultures opened at Meiji University in Ochanomizu last weekend. The library is a forerunner of a much more ambitious project to house the world’s largest manga collection, which is slated to open in 2014 as part of the university’s School of Japanese Global Studies course. Visitors to the library can browse an impressive collection that includes rare series from the 1960s. (Read all about the library in The Japan Times.)

While there are many commercial manga kissaten (coffee shops for reading manga) in Japan with extensive manga collections, public libraries shy away from comprehensive collections of comic books. My own local library in Chuo Ward, despite being rather large, only has a disappointingly slim number of Osamu Tezuka classics. Before the Yonezawa Library opened in Tokyo, the only other decent public collection available was in Kyoto at the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which opened three years ago.

Continue reading about archived manga →

New faces down on the farm

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Farm bootsCombine rising food prices with rejection of the rat race and you’ll begin to understand why the popularity of farming as a hobby – both in Tokyo and the surrounding hinterlands  – continues to grow. It’s not a bad idea, actually, especially when you consider Japan’s wilting food self-sufficiency rate and the fact that nearly half of Japanese working farmers are in their 70s or older.

Programs like WWOOF have been matching farmers with willing workers for decades, but the recession and subsequent corporate layoffs have inspired both part-timers and nine-to-fivers to trade in the work shoes for muddy boots on the weekends. Some travel to plots of land in the suburbs, while others are taking to the rooftops, even in high-street districts like Omotesando. Matsuya department store even has their own line of honey produced by bees buzzing around their Ginza garden. The vegetables in many of these high-rise sanctuaries aren’t always the idealized size or shape, but that’s OK . . .  because Japanese consumers are finally overcoming their aversion to oddly shaped vegetables.

The question to ask  here may be whether or not this return to the dirt will last when (or if) prosperity arrives again, but there’s no doubt that many city-folk enjoy the nostalgia of a farm life they may or may not have memories of. Just take a trip out to Mother’s Farm, a pastoral theme park centered on livestock. Here, families and dates on a day trip may stand in cues for nearly an hour  to milk a cow. If agriculture has become entertainment, can we grow popcorn?

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