Archive for April, 2010

Small is beautiful, for a change

Friday, April 30th, 2010

If you’re looking for a bra in Japan that doesn’t have enough metal to act as a cellphone antenna, enough ribbons and lace to swathe a bordello and enough padding to stop a bullet, until now, your best bet has been the underwear rack in the exercise wear section.

Look ma! No extra padding!

Look Ma! No extra padding!

This summer, there are a few alternatives, and women seem to be responding positively. Uniqlo has made one of its famously interactive, graphics-heavy Web sites to spread the word about its tank tops, tunics and camisoles with built-in bras. They even have a line of casual dresses with the subtle, built-in support. Last week, Wacoal announced online-only sales of a minimizer bra and, within days, had to tell would-be customers that they were almost sold out and not expecting new stock until July.

In a departure from the usual piles of padding that come in the form of foam, air pockets, gel packs, water cells and some space-agey “marshmallow” concoction, these new undies are designed to make the chest look “compact.” This seems to go along with some of the less-fussy fashions coming out as the temperature rises, especially the wispy maxi-dresses that  favor slighter figures.

The bras are made for cup sizes D, E, F and G. (Simmer down, fellas. That translates to U.S. sizes A, B, C, and D.) The underwire bras still look as architectural as Tokyo Tower and as sweetly decorated as a birthday cake, but appear to have no padding inside.

A short film about a wistful young woman whose cat returns home after she does a good deed (and dons a new bra) on Wacoal’s Web site hints at the change, albeit a bit obscurely, with the tag line “Small happinesses are the cutest.”

Wacoal is reported to have released this bra for the 10.7% of people, dubbed by the company as “the minimizers,” who agreed with the questionnaire statement “I don’t want to force ‘em up against their will.”  For the other 89%, there’s no shortage of uplifting, eye-popping contraptions.

Bento boys rock the lunch box

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Bento boxes for men now stack vertically

Bento boxes for men now stack vertically

Nestlé have recently launched a cute new site called “Bento Danshi Park” (Lunch Box Boys’ Park) that allows visitors to take a peek inside the carefully prepared lunch boxes of the nation’s salarymen. Feeding off the bento danshi trend that exploded last year, the site allows male users to upload photos of their packed lunches, which are then rated by other users.

The trend began with a string of media reports that stated modern men were more likely to bring a packed lunch to work for economic and health reasons. Proving that this wasn’t all hot air, BP Net reported that Tokyu Hands saw a significant rise sales of bento boxes specifically designed for men and that publishing companies also done well with recipe books for simple bento lunches. For example, last spring the publication of “Bokuben” (My Lunch Box) by Matsuki Kamizawa (Goma Books), a how-to book aimed at male readers, proved to be a big hit.

A homemade bento, prepared with the right ingredients, can cost as little as ¥200, and some male workers have managed to slash their daily budgets even further by joining the new tribe of “suitou danshi” – men who take drinks to work in a thermos.

Many men, however, have reportedly been drawn to making bento simply out of a desire to learn how to cook. Attractive and healthy bento were matched with herbivorous men (yet another media catchphrase used to describe Japan’s version of the metrosexual) and Nestlé’s site is clearly aimed at that niche market. And what’s the link between bento and Nestlé, you might rightly ask? Turns out that it’s all to promote more soshokukei danshi (herbivorous men) eating airy Aero chocoloate.

At the time of writing, however, the top-ranked box lunch on Bento Danshi Park was a simple Chinese-style fried rice, accompanied by a piece of fried chicken, which perhaps indicates the site is frequented by guys who rate speed and economy over acquiring complicated culinary skills. Maybe the campaign isn’t exactly hitting the herbivore target after all.

One of the coolest innovations to accompany the trend is the rise of the vertically stacking lunch box, which is specifically designed to fit into briefcases. The theory being that flat-bottomed lunch boxes will just get upended if they’re put in alongside documents. This one from Metaphys is particularly cool and shows that the simplest bento can still be eaten with style.

Major beer companies diet excessively while craft brewers beef up

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

Rest your liver, say the big brewers. Low-alcohol beers and sugar-free beers are booming.

The big four Japanese beer companies – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory – are in a constant turf war. Game theory keeps them intertwined in a fierce marketing dead heat, and the types of beer they release seem to be hamstrung by a monkey-see-monkey-do strategy and Japanese tax laws.

Over the past seven years, beer companies have produced cheaper and cheaper products by dancing around Japanese tax laws that define beer by barley content,  and politicians have continuously revised the regulations to combat deficits. Brewers first pushed happoshu, a low malt beer, through the tax loophole. Not surprisingly, the beer sold extremely well. Politicians modified laws in 2003 to tax happoshu, and brewers began to “third-type beers” such as Sapporo’s Draft One, which eschews all barley and uses fermentables from peas and corn instead. In 2006, politicians redefined these as “other fermented beverages” to bring them under tax laws.

As the law currently stands, 100% malt beer is taxed at ¥222 per liter, beverages with a barley content of 25-50% at ¥178, and those with less than 25% at ¥134.

Japanese "beer": So much alcohol, so little barley.

Current-day Japanese “beer”: So much alcohol, so little barley.

Most of these beers have maintained the standard 5% alcohol by volume level, but recently companies have been experimenting with sugar-free beers, alcohol-free beers and beers with higher alcohol content. Kirin just released its strangely titled “Yasumu hi no Alc. 0.00%” (“0.00% for the days you rest”), and the advertisements encourage drinkers to “Please, rest your liver” with some Japanese punnery. The movement for sugar-free beers culminated finally in Asahi’s awful Strong Off – a 7% beer that mysteriously has 60% less sugar – and Suntory’s Relax, a sugar-free brew that boasts seven hops. These beers rely on novelty to help them sell, and the big brewers will continue to swap their mutant beer lineup in and out so their marketing campaigns can stay fresh.

Japanese craft beer companies and craft beer bars, on the other hand, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: They are brewing more barley-heavy beers, and they are building a substantial audience of good beer fans.

While Japanese craft brewing has existed since 1994, when changes in laws reduced the minimum brewing volume required for a brewing license, only recently have Japanese brewers started pushing the envelope with extreme beers that make use of large quantities of barley and hops.

Continue reading about craft brewers in Japan →

Ciders and ramune quench a thirst for nostalgia

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Ciders from around the country have been enjoying healthy sales.

Ciders from around the country have been enjoying healthy sales.

Fancy a gulp of curry lemonade? Or how about some refreshing salty cider? Sold in department stores and over the Internet, regionally produced cider and ramune are becoming increasingly popular with both people nostalgic for the past and young people who dig the look of retro ramune bottles and cider labels.

Japanese cider is a nonalcoholic drink similar to Sprite, while ramune, introduced to Japan in 1876, resembles the British version of lemonade (clear, not cloudy). For me, the drinks are indistinguishable in taste, but that certainly can’t be said for the plethora of locally made cider and ramune that have been popping up all over the country. According to Kyodo News, in January of this year there were 127 varieties of regionally produced soft drinks, 2.4 times the figure four years ago.

The fun thing about the boom is that each area has its own take on the classic summer drinks, introducing local ingredients and using local water that has its own distinctive taste. Take Hokkaido’s melon ramune, for instance, which tastes of locally grown akaniku (red meat) melons. And as the largest producer of wasabi in Japan, Shizuoka naturally produces a kick-ass wasabi-flavored ramune, which probably should be placed in the “drink if you dare” category.” There’s even a salt cider, useful in summer to help rehydrate the body, made in the salt-producing village of Okunoto in Ishikawa Prefecture.

In at least one case, the selling point of the product is spiritual. Hiyoshiyo Goukaku (Certain Success) Daruma cider is blessed at Shizuoka’s Tenshin Shrine and claims to ensure students who buy it success in entrance exams. Personally I don’t think they need to make any mystical claims, as the cute daruma bottle already had me sold.

According to MSN news, department stores last year did a brisk business in locally made cider and ramune, with the help of attractive natsukashi (nostalgic) displays during the summer months. This year, online retailer Rakuten has got some good offers on mixed cases of cider and ramune for aficionados.

As the weather heats up, so should sales of cider and ramune, possibly making this summer the best yet for local producers. It looks like a locally made cola might also be a hit this summer. There’s already an Okinawan cola made from black cane sugar on the market and March saw the release of Iwate Koharu (Indian summer), a sugar-free cola made by a local beer brewer.

Women enjoy romances with their cell phones

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Which guy would you chose to date?

Women get to choose from a stable of eight handsome otomen

Yesterday saw the launch of a new dating simulation game for cell phones called “Kimi to Wonder Kiss.”  TV Tokyo Broadband, who developed the game in conjunction with Rejet, is hoping to cash in on the current boom for cell-phone dating games aimed at the female market.

While console dating sims for men eclipse those aimed at women in sales, it seems like the opposite is true for the relatively new market of cell-phone ren’ai (dating) games. CNET reports that last year ren’ai games made up one in seven of the games available on the iMode menu and out of those 80 percent were aimed at women.

The trend started in December 2006 when “Koibito wa No 1 Host” (My Boyfriend Is the No. 1 Host) was launched on the market. The story allowed girls to chose their favorite young man from a host club (a bar where women pay to spend time with handsome young men) and groom him to become the No. 1 host in the joint. The key to the success of this title was that it closely resembled a romantic novel in structure and also dispensed with complicated game playing rules, a style which appealed to its female audience.

As the market showed steady growth, ren’ai cell-phone games introduced new features. In February 2008 “The Hills Lovers” was released, introducing a system where you could get extra play time and get a sneak peek at game endings in exchange for purchasing more points. In March 2008 “Boku wa Kimi to Koi ni Ochiru” (I’m Falling in Love With You) attracted manga fans by using voice actors and illustrations from popular manga artists.

As the number of games on the market has proliferated, the games themselves have begun to fall into different genres, which include historical dramas, high school love stories or office romances.

“Kimi to Wonder Kiss” seems to be pretty standard. Set in a theme park called Dreams Come True, the player chooses her mate from a stable of eight high school ikemen (cool guys) and then pursues the love story to its happy ending. At ¥315 for a month’s play on NTT Docomo, the game is the ultimate cheap date.

The knock-on effect of Murakami’s “1Q84” series

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Book 3 of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84" on sale at a bookstore in Yokohama.

Book 3 of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84″ on sale at a bookstore in Yokohama.

Over the past three decades, author Haruki Murakami has been translated into over 40 languages and become an international superstar. In Japan he debuted in 1979 with “Hear the Wind Sing” and regularly sold thousands and even tens of thousands of copies of his novels, but when he published “Norwegian Wood” in 1987, he was thrown into the pop culture spotlight, selling in the hundreds of thousands and eventually the millions. Internationally, he started to be published in translation in the 1980s but didn’t boom, at least in English, until the late ’90s, by which time the trio of translators Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel started to catch up with Murakami’s log of work.

At this point, almost all of his major novels have been published in English and many other languages, which is perhaps part of the reason that the release of his previous novel  “1Q84” in May 2009 was covered so widely in the international press: News of a release in Japan whets the appetite of his loyal overseas readership.

The fact that the book was a runaway success in Japan is also part of the reason. Murakami kept the content of the story a secret (unlike with 2002 “Kafka on the Shore,” the plot of which leaked before publication), which undoubtedly increased interest and expectation in Japan. “1Q84″ went on to sell over a million copies of each of the first two volumes in hardcover, and as it was covered in the press on morning news shows and in newspapers and magazines, it became an almost unprecedented trend generator.

At some point in the past year, Murakami decided that the story was not finished, so he produced an additional 602 pages (bringing the total page count to 1,657), which were released as Book 3 on April 16.

Continue reading about Haruki Murakami's third installtion of "1Q84" →

Car-sharing iPhone apps unlock potential

Monday, April 19th, 2010

carlock

Considering that the monthly rent for a strip of asphalt to park a car can cost as much as an entire apartment in other places, it’s not surprising that car-sharing services are making inroads as a more affordable, more eco-friendly alternative to owning a car. As the number of services grows, companies are competing to differentiate themselves by going online and mobile — one has an app that can find a shareable car and pop its locks.

Car-sharing memberships are increasingly being offered by condominiums, car rental companies (Orix) and  parking lot companies (Park24).  Orix is the largest with about 6,500 members. Drivers pay a monthly fee of around ¥3,000 or ¥4,000 and then usage fees of a few hundred yen for driving increments as short as 15 minutes.

There are over 20 car-sharing companies in Japan now — and about half of them started up just last year, according to Japanese site car-share.net. Companies and government programs have been experimenting with the idea in Japan since as early as 1999. Mazda car rental, which was recently taken over by Park24, started one of the first widespread sharing programs in 2006, followed by Orix the next year.

The companies tout lots of pluses: no need to worry about gas, repairs or cleaning. They also push the environmental benefits of not owning a car (hence the green fonts and leafy cartoons on so many car-share Web sites). Orix even includes electric cars in its lineup: the i-MiEv from Mitsubishi and Subaru’s Plug-in Stella. (Sidenote: another money-saving, eco-loving car trend is car pooling, which is also called car sharing in Japan. Confused yet?)

Great. Saving money, elbow grease and the planet all at once. So how to find a car when you need one? The cars are going mobile in a twenty-teens way, as car sharing companies put out iPhone apps to get people into the shared cars faster.

Orix and “Car Sharing Club” Careco (pronounced ka-re-ko) both launched free iPhone apps this month. Both let members find locations and rates for available shared cars near particular areas or train stations and make or change reservations. Orix’s version has GPS as well as augmented reality navigation to the “car station” where the car is waiting.

Careco’s app includes photos and rental rates, and it even has a futuristic feature it claims is an industry first: it locks and unlocks the car doors. (Take that, Remote!) Future updates that include searching by GPS and push notifications are planned.

It’s been said Japanese love of car ownership could be an obstacle to widespread adoption of car sharing here. After all, 愛車, read “ai sha,” is in Japanese dictionaries, meaning something like “beloved car.” The unassuming English words “my” and “car” were even fused into a culturally defining concept. It remains to be seen whether the “ai phone” can replace the national love of the “mai-kaa.”

Yes, you can kankan: boater hats go with everything

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Boater hats of all stripes fill a shop shelf

Boater hats of all stripes fill a shop shelf

Once upon a time in America, men traded their felt winter hats for boaters on National Straw Hat Day every May and thus marked the unofficial start of summer. This year, in the coldest April in recent Tokyo history, the boaters are a season early, and it’s the women who are wearing them.

While grown-up headwear, from square fedoras and berets to flowery katyusha hairbands and whimsical head-perching mini-hats, are all responsible for upgrading the era of hip-hop’s baseball cap, it is the boater that is getting dressed up and down Tokyo. The Japanese name, kankan-bou (カンカン帽), like many fashion terms used in Japanese, comes from the hat’s French name, the canotier.  A classic straw version with a simple, solid wide ribbon gets top billing on the pages of online hat retailer CA4LA.com, but simple is just the beginning.

In addition to the standard wheat straw and other natural materials such as sweet-smelling cypress and raffia, the hats come in a range of styles and fabric. Would you like that in linen, denim and cotton printed with tiny flowers? Even animal prints are prowling the spring streets. The band is endlessly customizable, showing up in sequins, nautical stripes and black and white polka dots. In step with the decofuku (decorated clothing), trend, people are adding bows,  flowers or bouquets of buttons.

Continue reading about kankan-bou →

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