Archive for April, 2010

Crowd-sourcing sakura viewers

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

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Crowds in Ueno Park view ‘em while they last. (Satoko Kawasaki photo)

Everyone’s talking about the unpredictable weather, and this year they’re doing something about it. Crowd-sourced cherry blossom reports are taking the place of the official announcements that were put out by the Japan Meteorological Agency every year since 1955. This year, the agency declared the beginning of the season by measuring a tree at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine and ended the official predictions. This opened up the blossom-predicting business to private weather companies and Web sites.

Several companies are competing to replace the official JMA blossom report, giving office-bound nature lovers plenty of options for desktop tree-tracking. Weathermap Sakura takes a scientific approach, with charts, graphs and indoorsy-looking columnists predicting peak bloom times.  Weathermap’s sakura Twitter feed sends status reports on viewing spots, comparing this year’s full-bloom date to the historical average and last year’s date.

Not to be confused with competing private forecaster, Weathernews, which also has an interactive map. Its main selling point is photos and “My Sakura” reports from some 20,000 users keeping tabs on the state of the blooms. The site’s “SakuraSimulator” lets armchair forecasters slide a time bar to track the daily cherry blossom front as it spreads across a satellite image of Japan.  (Those who really like to plan ahead can have a go at the 100-year simulation.)

Japanese portals Excite and Yahoo! both launched sakura sites this spring. Excite has info on 500 flower viewing spots around the country, and Yahoo! ups the ante with 1000. They have similar searchable information that includes the number of trees at each spot and supplements like picnic recipes, cherry blossom crafts and sweet shops near popular parks. Maps and data can be sent from a PC right to a cell phone from a one-click email box or QR code on each page.

Both portals are packed with the one item more indispensable than portable hand warmers: user-generated content. Both have galleries of thousands of photos submitted by registered site members and blog posts about their blossom viewing experiences.

The blossom information on Idoldog is also crowd-sourced — by dogs. Well, by their proud owners. Hover over the cherry blossom icons on the map to see photos of pets amid petals uploaded by users.

These galleries may or may not lead to better blossom predictions, but they do provide an outlet for the millions of photos of the flowers people snap every year, macro lenses and tripods in tow. It kind of makes us wonder what people did with all the lovingly crafted pictures before there were so many places to upload and share them.

Tools you can trust for the perfect hanami

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

No surprise why Naka-Meguro is a popular hanami spot in Tokyo.

No surprise why Naka-Meguro is a popular hanami spot in Tokyo.

In Japan, when the little pale pink cherry blossom petals start appearing in late March to early April, it’s a cause for celebration, organized celebration. So what could be so hard about having a party under the snowy branches with friends or coworkers? Plenty. A pre-season hanami “fail” survey this year by goo Research found 10 ways a hanami can go wrong.  It can be hard to get the timing right. You can get rained on, end up at a place with no toilets, or pick a place with few trees. Even a best-case scenario can have you and your friends starting out sprawled in the sun and ending up a freezing mass, huddled and hungry on your cold, blue tarp in the unpredictable spring weather.

iSakura app gives weather and bloom information

iSakura app gives weather and bloom information

The survey,  translated by What Japan Thinks, found that the number one problem hanami party organizers have had was finding and keeping a good spot. With more Japanese people carrying smart phones, sophisticated applications are coming to the rescue, including new iPhone apps from AAA, Weathernews and iSakura.

The iSakura app, from BayardNetwork Co., appears to be one of the most popular. It has info on 1,000 cherry blossom-viewing sites across Japan and has been hovering in the top 10 free downloads in the Japanese iTunes store. It can search for flower-viewing venues by name, area, train line or highway exit or by using GPS to find the nearest spot. The database is also searchable via specific conditions, such as night viewing, free entry, availability of parking and public toilets, and whether beer, sake or snacks are sold on site. For each location, in addition to those details and the venue phone number, it tells how open the blossoms are on a 10-degree scale from budding to full and offers the capability to jot down digital notes.

The second most common problem blossom party organizers reported was running out of food and drinks. The Domino’s delivery iPhone app, also featured in the Apple store as a hot item, uses GPS to deliver right to wherever you are, even when you’ve lost track of where in the sea of tarps that is. It also has 20% off coupons within the app until April 25.

Continue reading about hanami-friendly apps →

NHK engages its viewers in a ‘global’ debate

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

The first show will address the issue of child poverty in Africa

The first show will address the issue of child poverty in Africa

NHK, Japan’s national public broadcaster, has just launched an ambitious project to hold a worldwide debate on global issues. The first episode of “Project Wisdom” will be aired on April 29 and will incorporate views expressed by both experts and members of the public on the project’s Web site. The topic is “Hope for African Children!” highlighting areas such as child mortality rates, malnutrition, literacy levels and AIDS orphans, and visitors to the Web site are encouraged to both view the opinions of others around the world and pitch into the debate themselves.

The experts for the program have been given the rather clunky moniker “Wisdoms,” and the Web site states they are “leaders with an influence across the world, social entrepreneurs dedicated to addressing serious problems worldwide . . .  ” People such as Vijay Mahajan, professor at University of Texas in Austin and Silvanus A.B. Malaho, a philanthropist and executive director of Kenya Volunteer Development Services.

While all of this seems to be fulfilling NHK’s goal of increasing the sense of global community in Japan while at the same time engaging people in other countries, the fact that there has been as yet (excepting this short article) been no coverage by foreign media of the project throws doubt on whether the corporation can truly fulfill its second goal. While the English version of the Web site appears to solicit opinions from foreigners, I have to wonder how many non-Japanese speakers will stumble across the site.

Continue reading about NHK's "Project Wisdom" →

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