Archive for October, 2010

Taking stock: new trends for the Japanese hot pot

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

The supermarket shelves stock an ever widening variety of nabe

The supermarket shelves stock an ever widening variety of nabe

Nabe is comfort food for many Japanese, a proletarian dish that brings people together to share from a bubbling hot pot of goodness. Of late, though, this traditional dish has seen some mutations, such as curry nabe, cheese nabe, tomato nabe and even collagen nabe, all aimed at satisfying the public’s appetite for novelty.

The proliferation of new readymade nabe soup-stock products also gave time-strapped consumers a wider choice of ready-made stock. According to Asahi.com, food companies such as Kagome and Nagatanien have taken their tips for nabe trends from restaurants that push the nabe envelope. For instance, when in 2006, curry nabe appeared on the menu at Denshibou in Sangenjaya, the following year saw instant curry nabe stock, like this curry nabe from House, appear on supermarket shelves.

The collagen nabe boom followed in 2008 and was extremely popular with women looking to take advantage of the reported skin-smoothing benefits of chicken or pork collagen. Next up was tomato nabe in 2009. That year both Kagome and Nagatanien introduced tomato nabe soup stocks that proved hugely popular with children, as the rich red soup stock goes well with either cheese or eggs to produce kid-friendly pizza nabe or omuraisu (rice omelette) nabe concoctions.

This year it look like ramen nabe will rule the dinner table – or that’s what Nissin, who’ve just brought out two new types of ramen nabe stock, is banking on. Will this latest product enjoy the same success as its predecessors? A strong indication that it might is the fact that the dish has been appearing in many Tokyo restaurants lately: Umibun Nabebun in Hamamatsu make a ramen nabe, Manbutaki in Sangenjiaya serve up a rafute (okinawan glazed pork belly) nabe and Chiyomoranma in Kanda do a chicken leek ramen nabe.

So what makes ramen nabe different from normal ramen? Well,  in the case of all the above restaurants, you cook your nabe on a pot over a burner at your own table instead of having it served to you. Also, like other nabe and unlike traditional ramen, you add plenty of vegetables. If you’re cooking at home, what you put in your ramen nabe soup is up to you but if you need guidelines, check out this recipe on Cookpad.

While Nissin’s ramen nabe, which comes in both tonkotsu and chicken with soy sauce flavors, looks set to take off as the next big thing in Japanese supermarkets, there might be one last obstacle standing in the company’s way: This year’s unusually hot summer has seen vegetable prices soar. As consuming lots of tasty green veggies is one of the main attractions of cooking up a pot of nabe, many consumers may think twice before they decide to cook up a healthy hot pot.

Densha otacool pulls into Akihabara Station

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

An artist's rendition of Trainiart, due to open mid-November at Atre Akihabara

An artist’s rendition of Trainiart, due to open mid-November at Atre Akihabara

More chic than geek, a new shop selling train-themed items is set to open in the middle of next month in Akihabara Station. Up-and-coming new designers such as Toshio Tamura and Hitoshi Takayama have been recruited to give the goods on sale a sleek, modern look, making the store appealing not just to unashamed train nerds but also to trendier customers who harbor a secret passion for anything railroad related.

Tamura has designed the Line & Number Series, which includes a hip black shoulder bag with a glossy finish. The bag’s white line motif represents the junction of two rail tracks, while the numerous zips also recall rail tracks. If you can’t stretch to the bag, which costs ¥1,680, then a wallet or pass case with the same design will do very nicely.

The K-4 ki Series by Hitoshi Takayama celebrates the various famous rail routes of Tokyo, including of course Tokyo’s most famous circular route, the Yamanote line. The Yamanote Line theme folder comes in the line’s distinctive green color and bears the number of the train line’s rolling stock.

It wouldn’t be a Japanese store without something cute on sale, and kawaii aficionados can get their fix by buying cute railroad-themed cookies that come in a variety of shapes including train fronts, station stops and, my favorite, train ticket stubs. Reflecting the fact that this is Akihabara, there’s also a maid dress cookie that’s a little more otaku than cool.

The shop will also stock postcards, train-related literature and photography books. If you’re planning a visit, you can find it in the Artre Akihabara Building at the Electric Street entrance from mid-November. If you can’t make it to Akihabara to get your fix of railroad merchandise, try visiting JR’s online store, which sells all manner of goodies from Suica Penguin rubik’s cube clocks to old school station master’s watches.

App unlocks augmented reality embedded in images

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

What secrets is Noguchi is hiding?

What secrets is Noguchi is hiding?

Remember how the Terminator could just look at something, scan it with his laser eye and call up all its vital data? A new augmented reality app from PR giant Dentsu is bringing us a step closer to having this power on our iPhones. The app, called Scan it (スキャン イット) and available on the iTunes Stores Japan, uses the phone’s camera to scan and recognize images the way that phones up to now have scanned bar codes and QR codes. Pointing the camera at any image that’s been pre-programmed to be recognized – a photo in a magazine, the cover of a CD, or the label on food packaging — will direct the phone’s browser to the associated website or content.

Dentsu has been experimenting this year with several AR applications. This summer’s iButterfly is a location-based coupon generator that has users with smart phones chasing virtual CG butterflies superimposed over real environments to “catch” coupons or other information linked to the butterflies. A campaign tied to the international COP 10 Conference on Biological Diversity being held in Nagoya this month uses QR codes to bring little AR animals to life in the pages of newspapers, even using standard keitai – non-smart phones – from all three of Japan’s major mobile carriers.

Scan it seems to still be a work in progress. At launch, the only images it could recognize were the faces on ¥1,000, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 bills. In the Japan Pulse test labs, scanning the faces took us alternately to a YouTube  page of videos related to Japanese money and what appears to be a YouTube search on the phrase “5 pounds.” So, for the moment, the Terminator it is not. But the potential for more is definitely there. Instead of using a blotchy square of QR static on its laminated menu, a bar could print a photo of a frosty mug of beer as a mobile link to its website, for example.

But Dentsu is banking on advertisers adding scannable photos and other images onto wrappers and posters and at points of sale. Waving the phone’s camera over these images could produce a snippet of music, an animation or a link to a website where the user can get more information or take some kind of action. Preferably, one imagines, action linked to buying something.

Scan it works on iPhones running iOS 4. What would you like to be able to scan?

Japan by the numbers (10.23.10)

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Snoods a hot item for both women and canines

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

This year the demand for snoods (スヌード), not to be confused with retro hair nets, has become so high among women that a department store in Okayama is experiencing a shortage of the headgear. In August the store stocked a range of over 500 snoods priced between ¥5,000 to ¥10,000, but supplies are already running low due to the high demand from female customers. Yomiuri Online reports that Daimaru department store in Marunouchi, Tokyo, is also doing a brisk trade in snoods, selling about 40 a week to a clientele of mature women aged 30 to 50. Both woolen and furry varieties are popular in a range of different lengths and all options tie in well with this year’s trend for Nordic fashion.

While the trend shows some resemblance to the snoods worn on last year’s Western catwalks, what Japanese women are actually wearing is more of an evolved take on the classic snood. The loose scarf-like material is sewn in a circle, ready to be wrapped around the head or neck several times. What is known as a snood in the West is actually called a neck warmer (ネックウォーマー) here, we know, it’s super confusing!

Snoods are also popular with dogs but the canine snood is, again, different, being closer to an elasticated head-band used to keep long ears back when eating dinner, keeping dogs warm and as a cute fashion accessory when out for a walk. According to a pet store owner interviewed by Sanyo Shinbun, sales of snoods for dogs have quadrupled since dogs began to don the headgear three years ago. For a look at the range of styles on offer, check out the selection at Rakuten. We especially dig this cute watermelon dog snood in the video above. Ahhhh kawaiii.

Anime fan pilgrimages help boost tourism

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

A new anime set in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, seems set to revitalize the city’s flagging tourist industry. Since the anime “Yosuga no Sora“ (above) went on air Oct. 4 the local government and tourist office of Ashikaga have been deluged with enquiries about visiting the city. But it isn’t the first case of popular anime sparking a boom in local tourism, as Kuki, Hakone and Kyoto have all become popular destinations among hardcore anime fans.

Perhaps the biggest success story is Washinomiya, a beautiful shrine located in Kuki, Saitama Prefecture, that provided the backdrop for “Lucky Star.” The surge in tourists has revitalized the town, partly thanks to sales of  ”Lucky Star” branded souvenirs. Even the mikoshi at a local festival this year was decorated with “Lucky Star” characters.

In November the area will host a special matchmaking event called otakonkatsu” (organized dating for otaku), providing an opportunity for single shy anime fans to hook up. Interest in the event saw daily visits to the chamber of commerce and industry’s website rise from around 500 to over 10,000, though some men were peeved that women could attend for free whereas men have to shell out ¥8,000 to participate.

Though already a popular tourist spot, Hakone is getting an extra boost from “Evangelion“ fans who often make a pilgrimage to the area to view places featured in the smash hit anime. There’s now an official map of the area especially for fans called the Hakone Hoken Map.

Kyoto, featured recently in both the hugely popular “K-On” and in the cult hit “The Tatami Galaxy,” is another well-established tourist destination that’s profiting from otaku tourism. Earlier this year we reported that “K-On” fans were putting up ema plaques at a shrine featured in an episode depicting a “K-On” school trip. (If you’d like to visit these spots yourself check out The K-On Guide to Kyoto.) More recently, “The Tatami Galaxy,” which is set entirely in Kyoto, was featured in the travel issue of Spoon magazine, which included a travel guide to the sites shown in the cartoon.

Tourism tie-ups aren’t limited to anime/manga. As Pulse, and everybody’s blogging brother, reported in August,  fans of Konami’s virtual dating game Love Plus got a chance to live out their fantasy dates in Atami (the latest version of the game Love Plus + featured an option to go sightseeing in the seaside resort town). Fans who went on the tour could take augmented reality photos of their Love Plus girlfriends, fill in a special stamp book at sightseeing spots and buy Love Plus/Atami souvenirs. The augmented reality photos, available to iPhone customers, superimpose an image of your virtual date onto the actual background, though it was noted by Game Watch, that there were some proportional glitches. In one instance, the digital girlfriend appeared to be as tall as a building in the real-world backdrop. Bug or a programmer’s private joke – you decide.

Enzyme cocktails for better health?

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

neoenzyme

A sip of Neoenzyme for what ails you?

Japan likes a good fad diet as much as any developed nation. As the U.S. has nibbled its way through the grapefruit diet, the Atkins diet and the Paleo diet, Japan has sampled the konnyaku diet, the morning banana diet and the hot pepper diet. The next trend in get-thin-quick schemes appears to be the enzyme diet (酵素ダイ).

There are dozens of varieties of kouso (enzyme) drinks, many packaged in tall glass bottles and labeled with ornate kanji that make them look like a bit like fancy liqueurs. There are enzyme drinks and tablets that tout natural ingredients such as papayas, brown rice and yeast. There are other drinks with vaguely sci-fi names like Ultraenzyme, Cosmic Enzyme and Neoenzyme.

The enzymes are taken diluted in water or gulped straight. They can be taken either as part of a fast, as a supplement to a reduced-calorie diet plan or simply along with regular meals. While they are all made by different companies and have varying ingredients, as a group, they make the usual wonder-supplement promises: easier weight loss, more energy, glowing skin.

Fermentation, an enzyme-driven reaction, has a long history as an important part of the Japanese diet. It’s what makes sake alcoholic and soy sauce flavorful and what has turned soy beans into natto, the sticky, stinky breakfast fuel of Japanese champions for the last thousand years or so. So it’s not such a stretch that people would continue to seek its health benefits, even — maybe especially — if it’s all in the form of a pale pink bottle with a heart on it or a cherry red liquid made from dozens of fruits, vegetables, herbs and seaweed.

A month’s supply runs from ¥730 for the papaya tablets to over ¥10,000 for a 720-ml bottle of Neoenzyme. Do they work? A website that ranks and compiles user feedback for different enzyme diet products has a space for “good” and “bad” opinions for each product. While each has its fans (“I’ve never had so much energy!”), quite a few also have comments like “I paid ¥18,000 for three bottles and barely lost a kilo,” and for another, “The taste made it undrinkable.”

What do you think? Are these pungent proteins really the way to get healthy? Or just another way to lose more money than weight?

Japan by the numbers (10.15.10)

Friday, October 15th, 2010

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