Archive for May, 2010

Takashi Murakami sets up shop in otaku heaven

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Murakami's gallery is flanked by stores selling rare toys

Murakami’s gallery is flanked by stores selling rare toys

Last month Takashi Murakami opened up a new gallery in Tokyo to show off his art work and the art work of artists he supports. While you’d expect such a high-profile artist to chose somewhere swanky and fashionable like Daikanyama or Omotesando, the king of cute decided to set up shop in the otaku haven that is the third floor of Nakano Broadway.

Hidari Zingaro gallery is not easy to find

Hidari Zingaro gallery is not easy to find

Opened in 1961, Nakano Broadway is fairly old by Japanese standards but unlike many shopping arcades of its time, the four-storey mall is still thriving. Finding the Hidari Zingaro gallery on the third floor was a bit of a challenge as it’s flanked by brightly colored shops selling rare toys or comics. In fact I only found the plain white fronted shop on my second circuit round. Inside, artworks by Chiho Aoshima, Nobuyoshi Araki and Mahomi Kunikata were displayed alongside Takashi Murakami’s work. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted and the gallery assistant was also very tight-lipped when it came to answering any questions about the gallery, revealing only that Murakami loved Nakano and that is why he’d decided to open a gallery there.

If you just stroll around Nakano Broadway you’ll see that there’s much for Murakami to love. The second and third floors are not only devoted to otaku culture but also house trendy stores such as Back to Mono, as well as old-school fortunetellers. A must-visit shop is Mandarake, purveyor of rare retro toys that have price tags to rival those on display at Hidari Zingaro (a piece by Murakami cost a minimum of ¥40,000).

On Nakano Broadway’s  first floor, there’s a huge number of incredibly cheap discount clothing stores that sell dresses for as little as ¥500 and the basement is home to a marvelous food market where you can buy what is possibly the tallest ice cream cone in Tokyo among other things. It a different story, however, if you venture up to the fourth floor where the number of active tenants is low and many of the shops have their shutters pulled down. Perhaps Murakami’s gallery will attract more of the art world and revitalize of this part of the mall.

Visitors to the gallery can expect exhibits to rapidly change and those who are able to read Japanese can follow Murakami on Twitter and hear about special events held there.

Mandarake is one of the best vintage toy stores

Mandarake is one of the best vintage toy stores

Clothing retailers want you to stay cool, stay fresh

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Summertime, and the business suits are cool

Summertime, and the business suits are cool

UNIQLO Dry

UNIQLO Dry

Summer in Japan is hot and humid. Newspapers wilt. Mold flourishes. Even non-electrically heated toilet seats feel pre-warmed. Subways set the air conditioning to arctic or just blast the fans to stir the muggy air around.

The Japanese government’s Cool Biz initiative launched in the summer of 2005 by then-Prime Minister Koizumi encourages workers to cope by taking off their ties and ditching their jackets. To cope, that is, with a carbon-emission reducing and sweat-increasing thermostat setting of 28 degrees Celsius. (Farenheit friends, let me save you a second. That’s an indoor temperature of 82 degrees.)

The jury may be out on how significant the emissions cut is and whether the initiative has helped or hurt the economy. But in the prospect of the workforce stewing in steamy offices all day, retailers have seen a great opportunity to push clothing lines with coolness built in. Ito Yokado also saw a ready-made tagline; its budget-conscious Power Cool and Mira-kool clothes are all categorized as “Cool Biz goods.” The company is just one of many retailers taking advantage of new fabric technology – anti-bacterial! anti-odor! – from manufacturers such as Toray and Asahi Kasei. They even say that washing won’t dilute the funk-busting properties.

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From Comme Ca Ism, one example of woven-in deodorant

Just in time for summer, Wacoal has put out a line of bras and other underthings made of a breathable fabric meant to reduce sweat. The bras are called “suusuu,” a word that hints at the idea of an absorbent fabric and invokes the feeling of a breeze. They have strategically placed strips of open mesh for ventilation. The Web site has a rollover “sweat body map” accompanied by infographics reflecting how people surveyed feel about sweat: the number one concern is shirt stains, followed by smell.

Uniqlo is following up the success of its slick winter Heattech layers with TECH Silky Dry innerwear for men and women. The women’s line of ultra-thin “air-conditioned” unmentionables is called Sarafine. Some of the camisoles come with removable underarm pads. For men, there are tops and bottoms made of slippery, stretchy Silky Dry. Both the men’s and women’s lines claim anti-odor, anti-bacterial properties.

In addition, Uniqlo has rolled out a UV-blocking line of knits. The UV Cut line is a collaboration with Anessa, a sunscreen from cosmetics maker Shiseido.

Can these fabrics really stand up to the heat and humidity that makes showering feel all but futile? It hasn’t been quite hot enough yet this year to fully test these. On those days when walking to the train in the morning feels like a full-on workout, any promise of coolness will probably find some sweaty takers.

Have you found any high-tech fabrics that actually help you keep cool? Any traditional tactics that work better?

Summer cell phones: which will make the biggest splash?

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Will KDDI's IS01 Android smartphone be able to outperform the iPhone this summer?

Will KDDI’s IS01 Android smartphone be able to outperform the iPhone this summer?

SoftBank, DoCoMo and KDDI are all hoping that their new lineup of cell phone models are going to make a big splash on the market when they’re released this summer. On one count at least, that will be true for almost all models, as waterproof was the dominant feature in this season’s phones.

But being able to cut it poolside wasn’t the biggest issue. What had keitai-watchers buzzing was whether DoCoMo and KDDI would to outshine SoftBank in the smartphone arena. SoftBank currently sell the iPhone, which has quickly become the nation’s favorite smartphone. Given the exclusivity of Softbank’s agreement with Apple, Docomo and KDDI naturally had to come up with rival devices to knock the sheen of Apple’s best selling gadget. To that end, last week both carriers announced new phones that will run on the Android OS. Among them were more interface options. For example, KDDI’s  IS01 smartphone offers both a qwerty keyboard and a touch display; same goes for Docomo’s Sharp LYNX SH-10B.

But SoftBank still seems to continue to be one step ahead, in terms of innovation. Many of the new cell phones in the SoftBank stable are Twitter-friendly, straight out of the box, thanks to either an app or widget. After the U.S., Japan has the highest number of Tweet traffic in the world, with the Japanese making up 15 percent of the globe’s Tweets, so it’s easy to see how this function might be popular.

SoftBank also showed itself to be ahead of the curve by introducing a pet monitoring device called Mimamori which can be controlled by the user’s cell phone. This very groovy looking digital camera is equipped with a motion sensor that allows it to track a pet’s movements while in the home and relay shots of that pet to the user’s mobile. The camera can also be remotely controlled in real time by users who want to check up on their pets while they are out of the house.

While Softbank pulled ahead with novelties such as these, DoCoMo really came up trumps in the style stakes by offering brand-designed phones for their Style Series, including models designed by popular brands Francfranc and Marimekko. Expect to see these stylish numbers dangling from the handbags of Shibuya and Ginza this summer.

As we already mentioned, the majority of phones were waterproofed this season. Will solar charging be the next big thing in the fall collections?  If so, both KDDI and SoftBank are already out of the gate. SoftBank’s Solar Hybrid 936SH developed by Sharp offers two hours of standby display or one minute call time for a 10-minute charge. KDDI also offers a Sharp model with their Solar Phone SH007 and also claims that a 10-minute solar charge is enough for a one-minute phone call.

As temperatures soar and these new phones hit the streets, the battle to knock the iPhone off its top spot is set to intensify.

Municipal meet-ups and pet-owner get-togethers for shy singles

Friday, May 21st, 2010

The food of love in Tochigi prefecture

The food of love in Tochigi Prefecture

What could be more romantic than a strawberry picking outing with a bunch of young singles in the pretty countryside of Tochigi Prefecture? Well, it depends on your attitude to romance, but matchmaking events like the Yellow Handkerchief Party are becoming increasingly popular and practical approach for singletons desperate for a good match.

According to Himote Times, in response to falling birthrates, local governments have reacted by jumping on the konkatsu (marriage hunting) bandwagon and setting up group dating miai for residents who find it hard to hook up with the opposite sex in the course of their normal lives. Far from considering such events as deeply unhip, many single people view the get-togethers as safer than the ones organized by more commercial interests.

Just recently Aichi Prefecture launched a group called Aichi Encounter Support Service. The service’s mission is to set up various miai events in the prefecture. In Ishikawa Prefecture, the Chamber of Commerce has set up a Yukata Coupling Party, a mixer where the participants dress in traditional Japanese summer clothing for July this year.

Even JR have got in on the konkatsu action. According to Mainichi, on June 20 a train on the Koumi Line that runs between Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures will host a dating party for train enthusiast singles in the 25-40 age bracket. Entertainment will come in the form of  train-themed games and quizzes.

It seems that commercial konkatsu events are becoming increasingly specialized since the boom caught the public’s interest back in 2008. Last year we reported on the popularity of gorukon, dating events for golf enthusiasts, and this year it seems that pekon (pet matchmaking parties) are now all the rage. Taking advantage of the recent trend for pet-friendly cafes, single dog owners can attend events such as this one held at the Blue Dog Café.

Whether you’d like to hook up with someone under the watchful eye of your local government or prefer to attend a private event where you can meet someone who shares your passion (be it for trains or dogs) similar pricing systems seem to apply across the board: Men have to shell out more. The Yellow Handkerchief event sets men back ¥4,000, while women only pay ¥1,000, while the pekon event we mentioned costs ¥4,500 for men and ¥4,000 for women. While the dating scene may be undergoing a revolution in Japan, the old-fashioned notion of men footing (at least the majority of) the bill still applies.

Daburu Koron hit big time with pun-riddled riddles

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Japanese comedy is an inherently boom and bust business. Comedians often base their humor on one specific physical or verbal gag — such as Sekai no Nabeatsu or Yoshio Kojima — and ride it into the ground. Depending on the comedian and the gag, sometimes even one appearance on the right TV show is enough to launch a career or pull someone out of obscurity. Sekai no Nabeatsu and Shofukutei Shohei, for example, have both benefited from Downtown’s Zettai ni waratte wa ikenai” (“You absolutely must not laugh”) batsu game broadcast every New Year’s Eve.

Other comedians put in their time and slowly build up a critical mass of popularity. The latest group to do so is the young manzai duo Daburu Koron (Wコロン). Puns have long been called oyaji gyagu (old man jokes) in Japan, but boke (funny man) Nezucchi and tsukkomi (straight man) Kiso Sanchu have taken advantage of the oft-denigrated joke and elevated it to an art form, reviving the “nazokake” (謎掛け), an old Showa Era type of Japanese riddle.

The two start their routines like normal Japanese comedians doing give-and-take jokes, but at some point Nezucchi will shout out “I’ve got one!” (“Totonoimashita!”) He then offers up a riddle. In Japanese the form of the riddle is “X to kakemashite, Y to tokimasu.” An example is the self-deprecating joke seen in the YouTube clip above.

In the clip, Nezucchi says, “Daburu Koron to kakemashite, shun o mukaeru mae no kudamono to tokimasu.” In translation this is something like, “What links both Daburu Koron and unripe fruit?” Kiso Sanchu then asks, “What do you mean by that?” (“Sono kokoro wa?” ) And Nezucchi provides the answer along with his trademark catchphrase: “Nobody wants either of us. I’m Nezucchi!” (“Mada urete imasen. Nezucchi desu!”) Nezucchi puns on the phrase “urete imasen” which can mean both “hasn’t been sold yet,” in the case of the unripe fruit, or “isn’t popular yet,” in the case of the comedians. While some nazokake like this rely on idiomatic expressions, most take advantage of the large amount of homonyms in the Japanese language.

Continue reading about Daburu Koron →

The merch of May

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Read the comic? Saw the the movie? Ready to buy some awesome, one-of-a-kind merchandise to show your loyalty? Well, obviously someone knows what you like.

Today Softbank revealed a Gundam-themed cell phone. The 945SH G Ver.GP30th comes complete with a super-cool charger stand on which stands a iconic RX-78-2 Gundam figure. Even more exciting, while it charges, a special movie will be shown on the phone’s screen. Each one can be individually decorated by the user with Gundam stickers so that no two are the same. Makes you go all tingly, doesn’t it?

The Gundam phone is waterproof, has a touch-panel display and other features include GPS and WiFi. While the phone won’t available till mid-December, Softbank will start taking pre-orders from tomorrow at their online shop.

Also on pre-sale are these funky One Piece sneakers. Of the four available designs, three come in a checkered pattern with skull motif, and the the fourth displays a print of the One Piece comic strip. Designed by Baroque Works, the sole is embossed with the One Piece logo, so budding Pirates can leave their mark when exploring uncharted lands. They cost ¥6,825 and pre-sales close on June 21; unfortunately, you won’t actually be able to put them on until after Aug. 1, when they’re scheduled to ship.

To celebrate the launch of Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman 2: Zebraman Strikes Back,” Arinco are serving up a Zebraman-themed Swiss roll cake named after Zebraman’s catchphrase: “Shiro Kuro Tsukeruze Roll” (Let’s turn on the black-and-white Swiss roll). The black stripes are achieved by rolling in cocoa to the white sponge. Those buying the cake will receive a free Zebraman tote bag along with their cake. Costing ¥2,100, the cake will be on sale at Patisserie de Paradis until May 31.

New ABC’s of motherhood in Japan: Apps, Beer and Crying

Friday, May 14th, 2010

The rewards of having a baby: the precious coos and smiles, the joy of continuing the human race, the free beer. Free beer? Sort of.

Kirin Beer is promoting healthy maternal drinking habits – and, coincidentally, its one-year-old Kirin Free beer – by giving cans of the alcohol-free brew to new mothers on their way out of the maternity ward. Free is among the ranks of last year’s wave of un-beers, which includes Suntory Fine Zero, Sapporo Super Clear and Asahi Point Zero. Free seems to be the only one explicitly targeting new mothers; their original campaign focused on pregnant women but this recent campaign marks a shift to post-partum partying.

And new moms who had the presence of mind to get on Twitter and announce their delivery on the  microblogging site are rewarded not only with a bunch of 140-character congratulations, but with an Stop Baby CryiPhone app, too. BabyBlog will send a free copy of its photo cataloging app to the first 100 parents each month to tweet 「出産なう!」(shussan nau), Japanese Twitter-speak for “I’m delivering a baby now.”

And hope the iPhone is still nearby when the tweets become a repeated string of “the baby is crying now.”  Not surprisingly, some of the top-ranking paid apps in the “medical” section of  Japan’s iPhone App store are baby soothers, including Stop Cry Baby Sound, Baby Smile and Baby Sleep.

Getting out of the house might be a welcome idea when the bundle of joy gets a little bigger. The women’s division of Japanese web portal Excite launched a mobile “Mama support” site this week with an “Out with Mama” directory. It lists “mom-oriented” details for about 20,000 entertainment, shopping and health-care venues around the Kanto and Kansai areas where babies are welcome, including vital data like whether there are places to nurse and if strollers can be wheeled in. The site, in Japanese only, is available on on the three main cell phone carriers, and unlimited access costs ¥210 a month.

Could any of these be the elusive population-boosting incentive the graying country’s been waiting for?

Finally, if the kid’s going to cry anyway, might as well make a sport of it. People have been getting a kick out of Asakusa’s relatively new take on the centuries-old tradition of nakizumou, a contest in which young sumo wrestlers compete to see who can make a baby cry the loudest. It’s all for the greater good – the tradition apparently comes from the old proverb “A crying baby grows up strong,” so it’s good luck if your kid cries.

Just keep telling yourself that.

Business card revolution

Friday, May 14th, 2010

My personal meishi hell

My personal meishi hell

The situation is getting out of hand. Next to my desk an old first-aid box contains what I laughingly call my “meishi (business card) filing system.” The system is simple: simply dump new cards on top of the old ones and spend half an hour frantically rifling through the clutter when I’m looking for a contact. But, an app called WorldCard Mobile that allows users to load meishi information directly into their iPhones may be the answer to my prayers.

The free lite edition of WorldCard Mobile has just been released in Japan last month and is capable of handling information from both English and Japanese business cards. By taking a photo of a business card on your iPhone, the software will then read the text and load it directly into your address book. You are then free to edit (or delete) as you see fit. Use is limited to one address a week with the Lite edition, but users who find the service useful might want to upgrade to the unlimited full service, which costs ¥2,300.

While WorldCard Mobile is not a Japanese technology, there is a homegrown solution to dispensing with the need to store meishi. Many people are now choosing to have QR codes printed on their meishi. This option has the additional advantage of working with cell phones other than the iPhone and allows users to access their business contact’s website by simply taking a snap of the code.

Of course, if you could avoid the cost and environmental impact of having to print meishi in the first place, it would be so much better. Enter the Poken. Launched in Japan last year, the Swiss gizmo allows users to digitally exchange contact information and has proved popular here. Once the cutely shaped Poken’s touch, information is exchanged, after you take it home and link the device to your computer via USB, you can read information about the person you’ve just met on the Poken website. It’s also capable of linking in with social networking sites like Facebook, Mixi, et al.

While the brightly colored cute Poken are likely popular with a young demographic, my money is on QR code business cards or WorldCard Mobile to revolutionize the business card culture. The respectful exchange of cards is deeply engrained in business culture, and it’s unlikely you’ll see high up businessmen exchanging Poken high fives in the near future. Taking a snap of a business card is more likely to fit in with corporate culture and could add an extra layer to the complex meishi etiquette already in place. One thing’s for sure: clunky objects like the meishi rolodex are going to become a rare sight in the offices of the future.

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