Archive for May, 2010

No Konbini No Life: instant maze-soba

Friday, May 14th, 2010

mazesoba2

Instant maze-soba is light on the toppings, which makes it far from faithful to the original.

Nissin launched its line of Cup Noodle instant ramen products in 1966, and to this day it continues to be a big seller, thanks to its low price, portability and reliable taste. Not much can be said for the names and flavors – Cup Noodle, Seafood and Curry are all about being no-nonsense and utilitarian. It’s the kind of generic, survivalist grub that you know the Dharma Initiative would love.

mazesoba1

Myojo Foods’ Maze-soba instant ramen, the latest ramen trend to hit konbini shelves.

While the first generation of instant ramen products may have been lacking in creativity, recent instant-ramen products have finally caught up with the innovations of the past decade’s ramen boom. Buttery Sapporo miso ramen, stinky Fukuoka tonkotsu ramen . . . if it’s popular on the ramen scene, you can probably find an instant version on the shelf of your local convenience store.

One of the newest products on the market is Myojo Foods’ maze-soba. Using Hiroshi Osaki, founder of the RamenBank online database, to promote the product, Myoji clearly wants to capitalize on the recent maze-soba boom. Maze-soba literally means “mixed noodles,” and it is very different from regular ramen. There is hardly any soup at all, but there are tons of toppings, and many of them – such as poached pork fat, raw garlic, raw egg, cheese and crispy noodles – are far more eclectic than normal ramen. Mix it all up and you get a goopy juxtaposition of flavors and textures.

Unfortunately, Myojo’s instant maze-soba is just a variant on the yakisoba style of soup-less instant noodles, which you steep in boiling water and then drain via a small outlet on the lid. The noodles are thick, but the kit contains only a very small amount of toppings, mostly dried bacon and cabbageit doesn’t even begin to approximate the complete maze-soba experience. That said, the sauce is better than the sweet sauce included with yakisoba, so it isn’t a total loss. If you’re looking for something filling, however, it might be best to stick with the tried and true Cup Noodle.

Maze-soba can be yours in just five minutes.

Maze-soba can be yours in just five minutes.

And while we’re on the topic, if you’re looking for online resources to follow the latest ramen trends, there’s plenty out there. In addition to the RamenBank, the Ramen Database is great for keeping up to date on the latest ramen restaurants. There’s also a number of fanatic English-language bloggers covering the ramen scene, and three in particular have received a notable amount of press over the past three months: Brian MacDuckston (Ramen Adventures), Keizo Shimamoto (Go Ramen) and Nate Shockey (Ramenate). Having first met online by commenting on each other’s blogs, they eventually started hunting down rare bowls of noodles together. They often end their excursions at Bassanova, the ramen shop where they first met and where Shimamoto is currently a full-time employee.

MacDuckston guided New York Times’ “Frugal Traveller” Matt Gross around Tokyo, helping him find material for his late-January article “One Noodle at a Time in Tokyo.” In its April issue, Japanese magazine Courrier published a translation of Gross’ article in the regular monthly section “Sekai ga mita Nippon” (Japan as seen by the world), in which they examine how Japan is being reported abroad. You’d be hard pressed to find better insight to Japan’s ramen world than these three websites.

When it comes good places to eat freshly made maze-soba, both Brian and Nate seemed to enjoy Junk Ramen  in Saitama Prefecture, which helped put maze-soba on the map, thanks in part to its connection with the super popular tsukemen restaurant Rokurinsha. “It’s just junk food,” says MacDuckston of maze-soba. “It doesn’t care about presentation. It’s just about the tastiest, fattiest things going into the bowl. The most satisfying things.”

The poor man’s alternative to iPad, Kindle, et al.

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

The EYE-reader is a good tool to display manga

The manga-friendly EYE-Reader

Any self-respecting geek knows that iPad is on its way to Japan. This week pre-orders of the ballyhooed device came flooding in and were subsequently halted due to the huge response.

But have you heard of the EYE-Reader? This weekend Japanese firm Samurai will throw their hat into the ring with the launch of a device that can be used as a photo frame, movie player and MP3 player. And yes, it is indeed an e-reader too, which boasts a matte liquid screen screen that makes it easy to read outdoors.  At 500 grams, it’s 180 grams lighter than the iPad. And the price? A mere ¥9,880.

Granted, the EYE-Reader lacks an EYE-store so you’ll have bring your own media, via USB memory stick or SD/SDHC cards.  Gizmodo reports that in a test drive it performed well when displaying manga but a closer inspection of the EYE-Reader’s specs, unfortunately, shows that it has a few limitations. Characters are not displayed as text but as images, which is all very well if you’re reading comics but a drawback if you’re trying to search for text as you would in a document. Also, PDF files have to be converted into JPEGs, the screen resolution is rather shoddy (the 8-inch screen displays at 800 x 600 pixels) and the two-hour battery time is a let-down, as is the six-hour charging time.

So, yeah, EYE-Reader is little more than a jumped-up photo frame, and we don’t see putting a dent in iPad sales. It does, however present an appealing alternative to the Kindle, which at ¥44,000 also displays manga as images but has only just begun to offer titles.

Gizmodo points out that at this price it would might be good for reading while on the toilet or in the bath. We have to agree.

Apartment shares in Japan draw a share of the herd

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Hitsuji Real Esate, for those who want to share

Hitsuji Real Esate, for those who want to share

Last October the Japanese edition of the magazine The Big Issue addressed the youth housing problem in Japan, conducting a survey of young Japanese in Tokyo and Osaka and interviewing several experts on the topic. Kobe University Professor of Human Development and Environmental Studies Yosuke Hirayama noted that changing demographics have caused housing problems for Japan’s youth. Most housing benefits came from “groups” that people joined – notably companies and families. Participation in these groups, however, is declining. People are waiting longer to get married, and the number of people with regular employment is falling. Housing subsidies and cheap company housing provided by companies for full-time employees enabled young people to save money, which they could put toward a house in the future.

Options for youth now are limited. Young singles are not usually eligible for cheap public housing, and while post-bubble deflation affected most of the economy, rents continued to rise. This has lead to “parasite singles” (youth who live rent-free with parents, draining their resources) and “net cafe refugees” (people who, not being able to make rent, turn to cheap options at net cafes for a place to turn in for the night).

Hitsuji Real Estate is a Web site that is doing its best to promote collective housing as a solution to the problem. The site, which started in 2005, maintains an extensive list of apartment shares across Japan, most of which are in the Kanto area. In exchange for listings on the site, which include professional photographs, apartments must meet the standards of the site. This is in contrast to the looser atmosphere of roomshare.jp, a message board where those with rooms to rent and those looking for rooms can freely post messages and search text listings.

In the survey conducted by The Big Issue, however, 60 percent of respondents stated that they did not want to live in shared housing because “it would be troublesome to live with strangers.” While cash-strapped foreigners in Japan have long opted for guest houses and shared housing, such as the English-friendly Sakura House, Japanese have been more hesitant to use the same techniques, perhaps with the exception of university dormitories. In order to help, Hitsuji Real Estate provides a detailed FAQ on the site with answers to questions like “Who lives there?” “What is it like to live there?” “Do problems ever happen?” and “What does dormitory-style mean?”

Some young Japanese are even working on their own to combat the housing problem, which I can attest from personal experience. I currently share an apartment with five Japanese and one Korean. Teppei Ohashi, one of my roommates, incorporated himself into the company G Place and rented the apartment. Initially all the roommates were Japanese. They lived together at a guesthouse in Gotanda and decided to move somewhere smaller. My roommate Ayako noted that it was, to a certain extent, easier to live in the guesthouse, as there was less responsibility, beyond paying your own rent and keeping the place clean. The apartment does have its perks – more space and privacy. Teppei rents another apartment as well, which he then lets out as a women-only apartment share. Currently three women from Myanmar are living there while they work at a bento company. As is evident from his site, he has other apartments and is looking for other real estate to rent out.

He is also interested in collective housing as a solution to Japan’s aging population – if young and old could share together, he believes, the young could help care for the old as part of their daily life. He works as a caretaker, spending some nights on call.

The media coverage in Japan treats shared housing as exceptional cases, which is easy when you find a group of geeks living together, but it’s clear that, despite hesitancy, collective housing is becoming more natural for the natives.

Read more about the benefits of shared housing in Japan on Yen for Living.

Zima kisses traditional giveaways goodbye

Friday, May 7th, 2010

zima bottles

Five smackers to choose from.

Canned and bottled drinks often come with an omake, a little extra giveaway perched on top or hanging from the neck – some tiny value-add to stand out. Character charms to put on cell phones are common, but oil-blotting sheets, model airplanes, PET bottle pouches, and even miniature Le Creuset cookware barely raise an eyebrow. (What’s that? You wish someone had kept a blog with pictures of all these Japanese drink bottle giveaways for the last five years or so? Enjoy.)

Zima is taking the art of the omake to a new level with its spring “Kiss A-ZIMA” campaign. The party may be over for the sweet, clear “malternative” beverage that was axed two years ago in the states, but it’s turning into a make-out fest in Japan now that each bottle comes with a pair of silicone lips. With the tag line “Zima taste is kissing taste,” the campaign suggests drinkers can enjoy their citrusy 4.5% alcohol beverage and steal a kiss from a celebrity at the same time.

Models Yukina Kinoshita, Aya Kiguchi and Yuu Tejima and soccer player Yuto Nakamura and actor Kensei Mikami all had their lips immortalized in the soft, pink plastic. The Kiss A-Zima campaign Web site has films of the lip-casting process for each person. A CG animated version of the lips twirls endlessly in a companion screen, accompanied by five measurements in millimeters (under, top, depth, width and height) and six dimensions (thickness, weight, firmness, etc.) plotted on a radar graph for each set of smackers.

In scenes that would be horrific if they weren’t so comical (or is it the other way around?), each set of lips is molded and then, several weeks later, presented back to the original owner in a black velvet jewelry box. Each star puts his or her lips around the mouth of the bottle, acknowledges what a strange feeling it is, and then takes a slobbery slug of the drink to loud lounge-y music.

The bottles come with instructions and a few do’s and don’t’s, laid out and explained by Gigazine. There is so much more one could say about all this, but, like step three on the instructions, I think we’re just going to let you “imagine.” And we’re going to try not to imagine where this could all end up if the booze giveaways are a hit.

A few  unexpected uses of the lips are posted on YouTube. (You can click at work – we said unexpected uses.)

We wouldn’t leave you without an omake. And, as with so many of the little drink bottle trinkets, it may actually be better than the thing its attached to. From Gigazine, video of the lips being made in a factory in China.


Mind-boggling highlight: Line workers elbow-deep in piles of lips, tearing them out of their webbed strips and chucking them into bins and big plastic bags for usable and unusable lips.

Rakuten raises the stakes

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Not content with being Japan’s No. 1 online shopping mall, Rakuten have announced plans to up their game even more by offering same-day shipping to their 50 million strong customer base. This move comes as a challenge to rivals Amazon, who already offer a similar service called oisogi bin (speedy delivery) to customers in the Kanto and Kansai region.

Rakuten, Japan's No. 1 shopping site, is upping its game

Rakuten, Japan’s No. 1 shopping site, is upping its game

According to Asiajin, up till now Rakuten’s business model has been a B2B2C (business to business to customer) model, but the new warehouses, due to be set up across the country, will streamline their operating systems, allowing Rakuten to make sure that goods are sent on the same day they are ordered.

The first warehouse is planned to be constructed in Chiba (presumably to serve Tokyo) this autumn, but Rakuten doesn’t only plan to offer this service to metropolitan areas, a further five other centers will follow over the next three years, which will also be able to service rural customers. The service may also push down delivery costs as items bought from separate Rakuten stores could easily be parcelled together.

As Rakuten tighten its grip on the domestic market, the Internet giant is also stretching its tentacles out overseas. In 2008, Rakuten set up Rakuten Ichiba Taiwan, a Taiwan-based Internet shopping site, and began an English-language version of its service that ships overseas and offers a slimmed-down range of Rakuten goods. But their biggest overseas project will launch in the latter half of this year. According to TechCrunch, China’s largest search engine, Baidu, signed a contract earlier this year with Rakuten to set up an online mall in China that is expected to quickly outstrip the competition. The Chinese version of Rakuten will initially mirror the B2B2C model of present-day Rakuten and will sell goods from popular foreign and Chinese brands as well as from smaller suppliers.

At present it seems like nothing can stop Rakuten’s inexorable rise.

Big (only) in Japan? Tape as proof of purchase

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves its been paid for.

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves it’s been paid for.

While Japanese government is keen to promote its green policies, the country does go through a lot of shopping bags. If you buy boxes of sweets as souvenirs, generally the company will ask how many bags you would like, enabling you to deliver the goods to multiple individuals still bagged. Order a set meal to go, or even just a coffee to go, at a fast food restaurant, and you might find yourself with a bag containing another bag which holds your beverage. Purchase a single item at a convenience store, and you will be offered a bag. Some people collect brand-name bags for reuse as posh purses.

One exception to this bag-centric culture is tape. Japanese stores use tape to seal the bag, either by binding the handles or taping the top of the bag shut. While the tape does help prevent the bag from reopening, it also serves as a useful proof of purchase.

Good to go: This yogurt has been paid for.

Taped and good-to-go yogurt

When you purchase a single item at a convenience store in Japan, you may be offered a bag, but depending on the item, the clerk may ask, “Is just tape OK?” If you decline a bag, the staff will instead adhere a small piece of tape to the product to signal that you have followed the laws of capitalism and provided the proper amount of currency in exchange for the item.

You can do your part by asking for tape. If you have space in your backpack or handbag, practice using the phrase “Sono mama de ii desu” (“It’s fine like that.”) Alternatives would be “Tape/shiiru de ii desu” (Just tape/a sticker is fine”). Each time you use one of these phrases, you’ll be avoiding excess use of plastic. On the other hand, the bags are reusable as trash bags. That is, if you live in a municipality that doesn’t have special bags that are used to throw out different types of trash.

Do they use tape as proof of purchase where you live? Do you know of any other interesting receipt replacements? Let us know.

Dog’s new best friend: microblogging

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

We all know that dogs are more sociable than cats, but recently,  our furry friends have taken that to a whole new level by utilizing social networking tools on the Web. Twitter and Mixi are already popular with dog owners keen to share info aobut their pet pooches but, even better, this month saw the launch of the cell phone version of Fur Peace, a Twitter-like site that allows owners to write messages about their days with the doggies. As it’s now available for smart phones, owners don’t have to be tied to their PCs to post and upload messages while they’re out on walkies.

Fur Peace, which was developed by students at Waseda University and launched in February, has stolen the march on doggie-microblogging from Twitter with the addition of canine-friendly extras. Unlike Twitter, pictures can be displayed alongside posts and users can engage in short conversations if they feel like it, upping the awwww factor immensely: “The dandelions are blooming,” barks one dog, accompanied by a picture of said hound with his snout in a patch of dandelions. In addition to uploading cute pictures, owners can use the Fur Peace matchmaking service to arrange amorous assignations for their pedigree hounds.

At the moment, most owners render their dogs barks into intelligible messages, such as: “This is a great place. There’s a river. Perhaps I’ll go for a swim, woof!” But, according to Asiajin, from the summer, owners of iPhones will be able to deliver messages straight from their dog’s mouth with the use of a simultaneous translation app. Bowlingual Voice, which analyzes barks and turns them into written messages such as “lets play,” is available in portable form from Takara Tomy, so some users of Fur Peace, who already have the gadget, may well be already writing in the first person. However, the iPhone app will be designed to allow users to upload messages directly onto Twitter and who knows, perhaps even to Fur Peace too.

While it’s not immediately apparent, the video above is a commercial for Fur Peace and aims to show how the service can strengthen the bond between owner and beloved hound. I love the owner’s final words of love to her dogs, who are cleverly named  Obama and Hato (clearly an abbreviated Hatoyama): “Obama and Hato, if you pee, you won’t get any dinner.”

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