Archive for February, 2011

With steteco and haramaki, old men’s underwear is young again

Friday, February 25th, 2011

A selection of steteco from Steteco.com

Men’s underwear is going retro in Japan, with steteco leading the pack. Steteco are “long trunks” that date back to tight trousers worn in Japan as early as the 14th century. The knee-length pants loosened up along the way and were just the thing to wear under hakama or kimono in the Meiji Era, and they made a comeback with the mass production of gauzy crepe fabric in the 50s. By the 1970s, blue jeans and the “new traditional” look had relegated the storied drawers to the top drawers of aging dads. But now, as old-man cute makes a global fashion comeback, the old briefs are young again.

In 2008, Steteco.com, a sub-brand of an intimate apparel maker called as, not only started making a youthful version of them, they called for nothing less than a world-wide steteco revival. “The first time I wore them under a suit, I loved how comfortable and absorbent they were, and how nice it was to come home, take off the suit, and just relax in them,” the head of the “Tokyo Labo” says on their site. “We decided to show the world how great life can be with steteco.”

Their vision has been catching on. In addition to Japanese fashion brands like Uniqlo and United Arrows, big international names are also bringing out their own versions. Hanes is about to put out a line in March, calling them “Neoteco.” Some have loud Hawaiian prints while others stick to a more traditional palette of sober stripes and plaids. The colors and  length recall surfers’ board shorts, but the fabrics are lighter and the silhouette is a bit slimmer. Levi’s made some, now apparently out of stock, to look like stone-washed jeans in blue and black. Company catalogs show both men and women wearing the basic models, and there are also low-rise women’s versions with lace trim.

Haramaki briefs from Wacaol's Lunch

Not so into the loose and breezy thing? There’s plenty more neo-retro for you, too. Check out the new shorts with a wide, stretchy haramaki attached at the waistband. A haramaki is a traditional Japanese undergarment, a warm and snuggly woolly wrap that people — mostly older men and women of all ages and most famously, Tora-san — wear wrapped around their waists in the winter to keep warm. Wacoal saw the market potential of adding the stomach wrap to their men’s lines after their women’s version sold well over the last several years. Women wear them at temperature extremes, Wacoal found, to protect against both winter weather and overactive summer air conditioners. Now they’re gambling that guys might like to keep their midriffs warm and have a little extra slimming support at the same. The shorts come in boxer and brief varieties, in bright bold colors and small flower patterns.

Since these are being released just as the weather is starting to warm up, the real goal may be more about fashion than old-man practicality. That said, picnicking on those blue tarps at the early spring hanami is always chillier than expected. Going full length with haramaki tights might not be a bad idea.

Techno Shugei weaves craft into circuitry

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Techno Shugei's New Year's Rabbit, background knitted by 203gow

Meet Hebitsuke, the friendly felt snake whose eyes light up with joy when he bites his own tail. The snake is the work of the Techno Shugei (Handicrafts) group who published a book in November 2011 containing instructions on how to construct Hebitsuke — a combo of circuit boards with fluffy materials — and much more. The book, which bears the same title as the group, is proving to be a surprise hit, enjoying steady sales with people keen to try their hand at sewing, knitting and simple circuitry.

Hebitsuke's eyes light up when it bites its own tail

Techno Shugei was formed back in 2008 by Kyoko Kasuya and Tomofumi Yoshida, a pair of engineering students who shared the vision of combining handicrafts with circuitry. Their simple witty pieces were pretty popular back in autumn 2009 when we visited the Make: Tokyo Meeting at Ookayama campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and since that time they’ve been busy programming and sewing to bring together this crafty collection of electronic objects.

The book contains instructions on how to program the Arduino circuit board used in their works as well as how to sew and fit together works like felt LED broaches and winking fox gloves. They’ve even thought up a fix for the glove/touchpad problem by sewing crosses of conductive thread on the pads of the index finger of a normal glove (quite possibly a cheaper solution than buying touchscreen gloves).

Techno Shugei is affiliated with Make Magazine that runs great events showcasing the work of amateur scientists and crafty types. At the last Make event, their book was in demand and sold out quickly, according to Nikkei Trendy. Another artist who exhibits her work at Make events is guerrilla knitter 203gow who has some works on display at the Make: in Hands event in Shibuya (on until Feb. 28). The knitting artist, whose own octopus-inspired work is currently making waves, has also collaborated with Techno Shugei to produce this cute scene for their New Year’s rabbit.

Unfortunately Techno Shugei won’t be at the Make event in Shibuya, but you can catch an exhibition of their works on the 6th floor of Junkudo book store in Ikebukuro till Feb 28.

Come all ye hoarders and swappers

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Brother, can you spare some shoes? Japanese men are being encouraged to swap their shoes via a new online service called 4 Jigen (Dimension) Closet, which launched this month. To register, men simply upload information about a pair of shoes they’re willing to loan out and once that’s done, they can borrow a “new” pair of shoes from an online collection of secondhand shoes for a small fee. The fee, which usually comes to around ¥525, covers a cleaning service and postage.

Before you borrow some shoes, simply register a pair of your own

For those who like to keep in step with the latest styles, the concept definitely has an upside: Puma, Lanvin and YSL are just some of the brand names already available. And if you’re worried about using other people’s whiffy shoes, be assured that the cleaning process is pretty thorough: The company behind the scheme, 1K, sticks the shoes in a washing machine, scrub ‘em with a toothbrush, buff them and deodorize them before finally putting in new insoles.

According to Fashion Snap, the idea was the winner of a competition sponsored by Skylight Consulting which is aimed at encouraging the start-ups of twentysomethings. If it’s successful, 1K  intends to expand the service to include other clothing items. But will today’s fastidious male be willing to swap shoes with a complete stranger?

One good indication for the future fortunes of 4 Jigen Closet is that the economic downturn seems to have made the Japanese less squeamish about buying secondhand clothing. A recent article in The Japan Times reported that secondhand book store Book Off are now expanding into the clothes market and sales of secondhand apparel on online store Rakuten are taking off.

The concept of getting something for next to nothing is also at work on Livlis, a site on which you can acquire other stuff for free (if you’re willing to pay delivery charge at the other end). A beta version of the Twitter-powered site went live in December last year. Originally set up for residents of Kawasaki City last year, the site now offers its services nationwide. At post time, electronic gadgets, video games, textbooks and an Ikea desk were among the items on offer. If you have clutter, it certainly beats paying the haikibutsu shori guys. Be warned that people also tweet stuff they want to sell on the site, so make sure the item you’re after is flagged 無料 (free) before you send off a message.

Music makes bananas fit for the long run

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Blasting an early ’90s J-pop song on repeat for a week straight might sound like a dubious military tactic. But Dole is just doing it to give its bananas a little extra pep for the Tokyo Marathon.

Banana power

Banana power

A variety of banana called Lakatan will arrive green from the Philippines and then be ripened for eight days in a storage facility after arrival in the Tokyo area. Various companies in Japan have experimented with giving their foods and beverages a bit of culture by letting them mature to Mozart, with “Mozart bananas” getting the most attention. While the Mozart pieces were chosen for frequency profiles that are reported to increase taste quality, the music for the marathon bananas was chosen a bit less scientifically: Dole asked former marathon runners via Twitter what songs they’d most like to hear at different points in the race. The inspirational song “Makenaide! (Don’t Give Up!)” by Zard was the hands-down winner, so that’s what the bananas are being serenaded with, 24 hours a day, for the eight days leading up to the marathon.

Some 78,000 bananas will be given out throughout the race to the 32,000 marathon runners at four spots along the 42.2-km route. The soundness of the science behind the singing seems to be a minor point. The company alludes to it only by having a slightly skeptical “Chief Quality Officer Alberto” of the plantation say in the promotional video clip that he “heard somewhere that playing music for the fruit  increases the sugar content . . . They’re nutritious either way, so why not give it a shot.”

With or without music, the Lakatan bananas have about twice the citric acid as the more commonly eaten Cavendish variety. Citric acid is popular as a diet and sports nutrition ingredient in Japan, and these little guys will continue to be sold as “sports bananas” once the race is over. They’re quite a bit smaller than the bananas usually sold in Japan, with a slightly tarter taste and denser, slightly orangey flesh. They’ll be available in grocery stores for about ¥300 a bunch, and sports shops will also be selling them experimentally for the month after the marathon.

Dentsu, Young & Rubicam is the PR company behind the marathon campaign, as well as those memorable spots with Shingo Katori sprouting bananas from his face. Just us, but we find the music thing a lot less disturbing.

And the next taberu rayu will be . . .

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Ebara Food's Gudakusan yakiniku sauce

Following on from the huge success of spicy sauce taberu rayu last year, food manufacturer’s are racing to produce the next sauce sensation. The media are also keen to get a hold of the next big thing and quite a bit of attention has been devoted to Ebara Foods’ Ougon no Aji Gudakusan Korean barbeque sauce, due to hit the shelves on Feb. 21.

Online magazine J-Cast ran a piece on the sauce with a headline speculating whether the sauce had the potential to become the next taberu rayu. Predictably, much of the copy was regurgitating the hype from Ebara’s press release, without providing any convincing reasons why the sauce might become a hit. The sauce, which contains onion, white sesame seeds and garlic, is merely a thicker version of the existing Ogun No Aji sauce already on the market, and doesn’t appear to have the unusual appeal of taberu rayu.

Yamasa's ponzu jelly sauce

Our money is on jelly ponzu (ジュレぽん酢) coming out on top. Manufacturers claim that this gloopy jelly version of the citrus sauce is highly versatile and can be used to good effect on almost any dish. While traditional ponzu sauce is used as a salad dressing or eaten with fried foods such as tempura or chicken, jelly ponzu can be spread on virtually anything you fancy. We liked the sound of tofu with a jelly topping or seared tuna steaks and ponzu jelly.

Two new ponzu jelly products are launching this month. On Feb. 15. Yamasa Shoyu released their Kombu Ponzu Jelly (昆布ぽん酢ジュレ) and on Feb. 21 House Foods are bringing out Jelly Ponzu Topping (のっけてジュレぽん酢). Yamasa Shoyu’s PR representative Hiroyuki Ooshika explained in a recent article in Tokyo Walker where the jelly trend comes from: “Recently we’ve observed that many restaurants are using condiments in the form of jellies. We wanted to create a product which you could freely use at home.”

The Tokyo Walker editorial team did a trial run of the Kombu Ponzu Topping, testing it out on convenience store food to see if it really was as versatile as the maker’s claimed. The results were positive: The sauce went great with karage but even better with the more unusual food pairing of oden.

Chefs rise to rice-flour roll cake challenge

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Roll your own: A selection of cakes made from rice flour featured in a recent Daimaru competition

Soft, springy and yummy, the mochi mochi rice-flour roll cake (Swiss roll) is in the spotlight this month at Daimaru Tokyo department store. Until Feb.22  the store is hosting Japan’s first rice-flour roll cake championship. The competition features 15 different types of roll cakes battling it out each day to win a place on the list of top five roll cake role of honor.

Mochi mochi means springy in Japanese and is used to describe the charms of bread or cakes made from rice flour. The rising popularity of rice-flour products, a option that is particularly attractive to people who are allergic to wheat flour, has largely been fueled by the runaway success of Sanyo’s Gopan “home bakery” machine. The device, which launched in November 2010, was so popular that Sanyo couldn’t meet customer demand and the company has had to stop taking orders until production can be increased in April.

Rice flour is not the only unusual ingredient in these roll cakes, and this competition really shows off the creativity of roll-cake chefs from all over the country. The diverse ingredients used in the cakes include green tea, sesame, mikan, soy, Japanese chestnut and purple sweet potato (beni-imo).

Each slice costs ¥367, and the names of the best-selling five cakes are displayed on a board the next day. Many visitors will be eager to try out the Momo Kome Roll created by celebrity Miyoko Oomomo (whose nickname is Momo-chan).  Made with special Niigata momo rice, the roll is filled with rich strawberry cream. Though they all sounded tempting, we were drawn to the one with a cute cow’s face made out of cream and sponge.

The Daimaru event is another indication that rice-flour products are still hot in 2011. According to Walker Plus, limited-edition koshihikari bagels made from rice flour went on sale at Bagel & Bagel last month and, until the end of January, Mister Donut sold doughnuts made from rice flour in soy, sesame and chocolate flavors.

Can mah-jongg and pachinko parlors clean up their acts?

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Healthy Mah-jongg is getting more popular with young players who've discovered the game online

When we think of mah-jongg we generally conjure up images of middle-aged guys playing in dingy rooms, filled with thick blue smoke. So we definitely took note when we heard of  Kien Mah-Jongg Story, a new parlor that is offering a refreshingly smoke-free environment to its customers.

“Fewer people smoke and there’s a lot of people who hate smoking,” said company president Akira Aiba in a recent interview with Shibuya Keizai Shimbun. The atmosphere at Kien (no-smoking) Mah-jongg Story is “low key and chic” and designed to attract a younger, more fashionable, crowd in their 20s and 30s. Though the mahjong world of the past was predominantly male, Internet mahjong sites have turned on a new generation of younger female players.

The trend isn’t limited to the younger generation. According to a recent article in the Telegraph, Japan’s elderly generation are also opting to play the game in a healthier environment. Kenkou (healthy) Mah-jongg parlors (many of which are owned by Galapagos), where drinking, gambling and smoking are forbidden, have opened all over the country and are attracting a mainly female, elderly clientele.

Pachinko, another gaming industry that’s traditionally associated with chain smokers, appears to be taking steps — baby steps — toward cleaning up its act. You can be forgiven for thinking that pachinko parlors require their patrons to smoke, but there are actually a few places of refuge for non-smokers and their numbers are growing. Furthermore, there’s been talk in the Diet of extending the public smoking ban to places such as pachinko parlors, though you can bet that the owners and the tobacco industry will put up a fight.

What do you think? Should the smokers be kicked off the premises?

Calligraphy gets a brush-up

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Apart from writing New Year’s cards once a year, most adult Japanese rely on computers to help them write out complex Chinese characters (kanji), meaning many forget how to write them by hand. This has had a detrimental effect on the traditional craft of shodo (calligraphy), which, until recently, was steadily losing popularity among Japanese. But artists who’ve been giving shodo a fashionable spin and popular dramas about the craft have led to a quiet revival.

Suitou Nakatsuka, for instance, is a self-styled “calligraphy space designer.” In addition to practicing traditional calligraphy, she creates modern calligraphy artworks live at fashionable parties, has decorated a munny doll, digital weather reports and her own collection of Arita-ware pottery. Her work has appeared on TV and in various fashion magazines like Can Can. In December last year she released a calligraphy work book for beginners who might want to take up the craft.

Live calligraphy painting is also practiced by artist Kotaro Hachinohe, who uses a camera inside his brush during performances. This performance in Sapporo last year (above) shows him creating an artwork to a jazz soundtrack. He doesn’t limit himself to using traditional washi paper but has used walls and even the interior of a tent as a canvas.

Calligraphy as performance art is an idea that reverberated in the 2010 movie “Shodo Girls!!” in which a high school calligraphy club shakes things up at the national Koshien competition. An NHK TV drama series titled “Tomehane Suzuru High School Shodo Club,” an adaptation of a popular manga of the same name, also came out last year and is thought to have inspired many young Japanese to take up the craft.

In a recent interview on J-Cast TV, Fumiko Ota, the editor of shodo magazine “Sumi” (ink), said that people were attracted to shodo because it involved taking time to do something carefully, taking time out for themselves. The magazine is now celebrating its 35th year with a special Jan./Feb. edition aimed at riding the wave of the shodo trend. The edition features tips for beginners as well as a special DVD featuring performances from the country’s top calligraphy artists.

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