Archive for January, 2010

Which e-reader will conquer Japan?

Friday, January 29th, 2010

readers

The news that Amazon Japan will be offering the first Japanese manga on Kindle will be welcomed by a small cadre of dedicated e-reader fans. So what took so long? Part of the problem is that the Kindle’s default font only supports Latin-based letters so that device owners either have to use a hack to view Japanese characters or be able to read English. As the text in manga is displayed as an image, this ought to eliminate one problem, though users will still have to negotiate English menus to buy a title and be satisfied with monochromatic pictures.

So why isn’t Amazon too bothered with tailoring their device to suit the local market? Perhaps an answer to that question can be found in 2004 when Sony introduced LIBRIe, their first e-reader for the Japanese market. ITmedia News’ article explains that the product failed to spark the imagination of the Japanese public, who despite enjoying reading titles from their mobile phones, felt the technology wasn’t particularly aesthetically pleasing.

Due to poor sales, the Sony e-reader was withdrawn from the Japanese market in 2007, clearing the way for Amazon and other players. Despite this, in the U.K. and U.S., Sony’s e-readers are proving themselves strong competitors against the Kindle, both in terms of price and applications.

Continue reading about e-readers in Japan →

Japan by the numbers (01.29.10)

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Game makers take chances on real-world spin-offs

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

While Japan is home to numerous theme bars and restaurants, there aren’t many that are specifically based on any one computer game. Presumably the game makers keep a tight grip on merchandising of their products and have, until recently, seen no reason to branch out into the café or restaurant business. However, Jan. 28 will see game makers Square Enix opening a karaoke bar in Roppongi called Luida’s Bar. Based on a bar that existed – up till now – only in the popular game “Dragon Quest,” Luida’s Bar will serve food and drinks that reflect the game, such as slime nikuman (steamed buns) or “elf medicine.” Of course, the beautiful maidens who will be serving these concoctions will be dressed in ye olde fantasy world costumes.

Square Enix is not the first company to attempt a brick-and-mortar spin-off. Last year Polyphony Digital opened a Gran Tourismo cafe – right next to the Twin Ring Motegi race circuit – where visitors can play Grand Tourismo 5 while sipping their cappuccinos. But while Luida’s Bar had been opened hot on the heels of the release of “Dragon Quest 9” for the DS, some game fans were left wondering why the Grand Tourismo cafe opening hadn’t coincided with any notable activity for the game itself.

Even further back, in November 2005, Konami opened a game-themed café “Tokimeki Memorial Cafe” in Harajuku which was based on the eponymous dating-sim game. Drinks were served by hot young things in school uniform, presumably to a crowd of otaku too busy playing online games to notice the cuteness of the staff. While the game itself appears to be still going strong with “Tokimeki Memorial 4″ recently out for PSP, Tokimeki Memorial Cafe itself only lasted a year (it moved to Akasaka and became a “live house/bar,” minus the Tokimeki connection). Perhaps the real world version wasn’t as popular as the virtual space? If this was the case, Luida’s Bar might not be around so long.

Japan’s chocolatiers search for the sweet spot

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Left to Right: Sapporo's Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory's Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi's Chocolat Cocktail

Left to right: Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi’s Chocolat Cocktail

With weeks to go until Valentine’s Day (and its younger Japanese cousin, White Day), the barrage of new chocolate products and chocolate marketing has begun. Japan’s 285,000-ton-a year habit pales in comparison to western consumption, but the sweet stuff plays an major role in the country’s snack and dessert markets, as well as in societal traditions such as the o-chugen, o-seibo and omiyage. What was once considered a yearly social obligation for many women is now changing, but people continue to buy cacao products (including luxury items), if for no one else but themselves.

Recipes are not restricted to candy, however. A variety of chocolate-flavored beverages are now available at convenience stores. Japan Pulse’s independent and unscientific taste test found that the flavor of Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer fits the winter palate quite well (although some disagree), but the brew loses points for being happoshu instead of proper beer.

Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda was surprisingly drinkable, but the sensory equivalent of a trompe-l’œil for the tongue: How could something that goes down like Perrier taste like a Cadbury? W. David Marx over at CNNGo postulates that the drink might be have been engineered this way to appeal to the sweet tooth who watches their weight. Clear as club-soda with an equally clean finish, Chocolate Sparkling lacks the viscous, creamy texture one associates with chocolate beverages.

Continue reading about chocolate in Japan →

Naive yuru kyara win hearts across Japan

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

He’s not cute, in fact many have dubbed him “creepy,” but finally after courting much controversy, the people of Japan have taken Sentou-kun, to their hearts as the official mascot of Nara’s 2010 celebrations. Sentou-kun, who looks like a young Buddha with deer antlers atop his head, is just one of many “yuru kyara” (literally “loose characters”) that have gained national fame in Japan over the last few years.

The phrase yuru kyara was coined by kitsch connoisseur Jun Miura to describe characters that have been rather naively created by non-professional artists to comic effect. While aiming to be cute, an odd concept or a badly executed design produces the opposite effect. Miura’s Web site is a treasure trove of rather odd yuru kyara, from concrete mixers making the peace sign to grinning 2-meter leeks.

But it’s the characters created by local government to attract tourism that have really set the imagination of the Japanese public on fire. In December 15,000 people gathered for a festival in the town of Ginan in Gifu Prefecture and according to a questionnaire, over half were there to catch a sight of Negicho, the popular aforementioned grinning leek character, or rather, a hapless civil servant shanghaied into wearing an uncomfortable leek suit.

Continue reading about yuru kyara →

8-bit sound goes above ground

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

“Retro” is the ears of the beholder. For some, it extends to the clang and twang of  electric guitars; for others, it’s the primitive chirp of a computer chip: that crazy 8-bit sound. And as every genre has its revival, it would appear that the latest incarnation of retro music is moving above ground, appealing to both older listeners nostalgic for the classic games of their youth and a younger generation embracing the lo-fi spectrum of electronic music.

Case in point: Namco’s Taiko Master Dondon Number Two, released for the Wii on Jan. 14, features the song “Family Don Don,” composed by chiptune whiz kids YMCK. Making music since 2003, YMCK are creating quite a niche for themselves in the game market. Earlier last year the band rearranged 8-bit classics for the Nintendo DS game PiCOPiCT, whose pixellated graphics also hark back to the dawn of the home-computer game.

While YMCK are leading the pack (they were even invited to remix Ayumi Hamasaki last year), other chiptune bands are enjoying moderate success in the burgeoning 8-bit scene. For a sampler, check out Fami Mode at Star Pine’s Cafe in Kichijoji, Tokyo, on Jan. 30.  The largest retro-gamer music event of the year in Japan will feature live performances from bands such as Consumers and Sexy-Synthesizer, in addition to a retro gaming battle and an indoor market selling old cartridge games and other 8-bit merchandise. If you’re fan, grab a Fami Mode ticket today, as they’re sure to go fast.

While Namco and Nintendo provide a satisfying hit of nostalgic fun with their retro style games, for some, it’s no substitute for the real thing. If you’d like to experience Japan’s vintage games then you ought to head down to the 8bit cafe in Shinjuku. The bar, which often has chiptune music on the stereo, has an impressive collection of Famicom and Super Famicom games and titles like Street Fighter II, Mario Kart, Pacman, four-player Bomberman and Puyo Puyo. The popularity of this venue and new retro-style games should prove that pixel power is holding sway with both the old and new generations of gamers.

Augmented Reality taking it to another level

Monday, January 18th, 2010

The hype surrounding augmented reality (AR) technology is often dwarfed by coverage of 3D television,  but that may change once both are put into practice on a broad scale. AR could prove to change lives more profoundly, not only by locating subway stations or inviting Robert Downey Jr. into your cubicle, but also by providing information about anything or anyone at which you point your device.

The Sekai Camera iPhone app grabbed headlines in Japan last year, and several new Japanese applications may indicate what to expect in the coming decade. The Red Cross is using face-recognition software and anime hair to attract blood donors in Akihabara, and the pin@clip application is now being tested in Shibuya, allowing iPhone users to get real-time information on shopping and entertainment options in the buildings that users pass by.

Continue reading about augmented reality in Japan →

Smokers escape the gas chamber

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

A crowded smoking area outside Shibuya Station (Masahiro Hayata photo)

A crowded smoking area outside Shibuya Station (Masahiro Hayata photo)

Anyone who has seen the smoking rooms in many of Tokyo’s main stations will know that things aren’t looking up for Japan’s puffing population. These Plexiglass rooms are so noxious that they’ve been nicknamed “the gas chambers” by commuters. Naturally, smokers can’t be choosy these days. Hounded off the streets in most wards and banned from lighting up on train platforms, tobacco imbibers are only allowed to light up in specially designated areas.

Fortunately for them, JT (Japan Tobacco) is very keen to keep Japan’s smoking population at profitable levels. For the past few years the company has been pleading with smokers to practice good manners and follow the “smokers’ style.” And if you’re in any doubt as how to be a good smoker, the company’s Web site is full of useful tips, smoking games, smoking history and suggestions on where to have a pleasant smoke.

In addition to outside smoking areas, the company has gone to the trouble of establishing “Smoking Lounges,” café-style spaces where smokers can puff away without having to shell out for a coffee. JT’s first “Smoking Lounge” opened at Narita airport in January 2006 but more have been popping up around Tokyo since. Naturally, there’s a catch to these “free” spaces. If you visit JT’s smoking lounge in Roppongi, for example, you’ll be given a sales pitch for Kent cigarettes (most likely by a young woman), asked to fill out a questionnaire and given  a free sample of Kent to try (one cigarette per person). Each smoking space appears to be promoting a different JT brand. JT also has the retro-looking SmoCar – a mobile smoker’s space that shows up at events nationwide and promotes smoking manners.

While an increasing number of cafes and restaurants are now closing their doors to smokers,  Cafe Tobacco, which opened its first store in Shimbashi last year, is catering exclusively to ciggie lovers (and offering exceptionally bitter coffee blends to boot). More smoker-friendly spots can be found in JT’s gourmet section, which  concentrates on a different metro area each month. The guide also includes outdoor spots where a peaceful smoking experience can be enjoyed. This month the guide is spotlighting my home town of Nakano and JT recommends that smokers head for Momijiyama Park, which has a lovely balcony overlooking a quiet pond surrounded by flaming red momiji trees. I can testify: It’s a prime location for a breather, and a far cry from Japan Railway’s gas chambers.

Photo credit: Mashiro Hayata/Flickr

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