Archive for April, 2011

Giving back during Golden Week

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Rather than jet off abroad, some Japanese are looking to volunteer in the Tohoku area during their precious Golden Week holidays. According to BuzzFinder, NTT’s social media research tool, the number of mentions on blogs of volunteering over the holidays has increased, while the mention of vacations, especially trips abroad, has decreased.

The expected GW surge in volunteers is so high that some organizations are putting a freeze on applications, and authorities are keen for people to go through the proper channels as accommodation, fuel and food are scarce.

One Golden Week volunteer trip given the official stamp of approval is run by Tokyo Voluntary Action Center. They’re currently recruiting for the period between April 29 and May 5 for people to go up north and lend a hand clearing out people’s homes. Only 60 spots are available and volunteers are asked to pay ¥25,000 to pay for food and transportation costs.

Foreigners wanting to pitch in might want to sign up for All Hands, an organization that is currently accepting applications to work up in Tohoku. All Hands volunteers are helping with the cleanup and food distribution in affected areas. The video above shows foreign volunteers helping clean out an earthquake victim’s house.

Another option for foreigners is Peace Boat, who is sending volunteers to Ishinomaki City to help clear rubble, transport goods and distribute food. Volunteers will need to pay for their own transport, bring a warm sleeping bag and be prepared to sleep in tents.

More opportunities to volunteer are likely to come up in the future as the support infrastructure improves, but in the meantime, donations to volunteer groups and the Japanese Red Cross are always welcome.

Electric bikes highly charged and geared for commuting

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Supercharged: Sanyo's SPL series of electric bike can take you 55 km in eco-mode

Sales of electric bicycles, which have been enjoying steady growth over the past 10 years, have been given a boost by a new cycling boom. Bicycle sales in general soared after the March 11 quake as stranded commuters sought alternative means of transport. The trend has continued as many office workers, wary of being stuck out in central Tokyo again due to cancelled trains, have taken up cycling. Getting back home completely under your own steam might be a bit much if you live way out in the suburbs, so that’s why electric bikes, which give a boost to the rider’s own pedal power, are a great option for longer distances.

According to GfK marketing, sales of electric bicycles from March 14-20 were up almost three times compared to figures taken between Jan. 2-10. Since the post-quake peak, sales have dropped, but have continued to be higher than average. While some of this can be put down to the start of the new academic year, we’re thinking that other new customers are using the bikes to help them cover long distances.

The motor on electric bicycles is powered by onboard batteries and the length of time batteries will hold a charge has increased over the past few years, making the machines increasingly attractive. Sanyo’s Eneloop Bike, released on the market last year, not only charges via the mains, but also recharges while riding on flat roads and down hills, making it one of the most energy efficient models on the market.

The Eneloop Bike costs ¥157,290 and the average cost of an electric bike in Japan is ¥85,000, but the high price tags have not put consumers off. Panasonic (who now own Sanyo), holds a 40 percent market share of the market and sells around 380,000 electric bicycles each year. Before the quake, in February, their sales figures increased 10 percent, while on the month of the quake (March) sales increased 30 percent, according to the New York Times. Granted, charging your bike isn’t really in the setsuden spirit of things, but at least it’s a step toward cleaner commuting.

If you’re thinking of investing in an electric bicycle, how about donating your old model to the Bikes For Japan project, a charity which is repairing and shipping second hand bicycles to victims of the quake?

 

For those who like their denim laid on thick

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Two kilo jeans from Eight-G

Here’s a product that’s designed to sort the men from the boys,  the carnivores from the herbivores:  2 kilo jeans. Since they went on sale in October 2010, demand for these extra heavy, extra thick denim trousers has been high, with popular sizes now available on pre-order only, according to Nikkei Trendy.

Typical jeans come in at around 11 to 15 ounces, but recently there’ve been a few new styles made that weigh over 20 ounces. Eight-G, the company behind these new jeans, have taken that micro-trend and run with it, manufacturing a pair of jeans that weigh in at a hefty 28 ounces. The jeans are custom made at Eight-G’s, Jeans Center Sakai store in Ishikawa City, Chiba, with sewing machines that were specially altered to be able to bite through the exceptionally thick denim fabric. All that effort means that this new product comes with an equally hefty price tag of ¥33,000.

The jeans have been featured in men’s lifestyle magazines Lightning and Daytona Bros, both of which target an audience who hanker after an outdoorsy American lifestyle. The positive publicity has evidently worked and they’ve proved a hit with bikers and denim lovers in their 30s and 40s who are keen to take up the challenge of wearing these heavy-duty jeans.

Part of the charm is trying to get them soft enough for comfort. You’ve really got to work to wear in these monster trousers: a newly bought pair is stiff enough to stand up on its own and the front button is particularly difficult to fasten. Presumably wearers will have to adopt a rolling, straight-legged cowboy gait in order to get around in them, perfect for scoring big macho points. Unfortunately. as we move into spring, they’re liable to make you sweat buckets on a hot day, putting a dampener on your hard-fought macho cool.

Save today for the summer blackouts

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

GreenFan2: energy efficient

As the country faces power shortages and the threat of blackouts extending into the summer, consumers are going to be more conscious than ever about purchasing energy efficient products. Here’s a roundup of the latest technologies on sale:

GreenFan2: Electric fans are going to be an obvious option for those wanting to do their bit and cut down on energy consumption as the weather heats up. Balmuda, who makes this fan, has gone one better by designing an electric fan that is significantly lower on energy consumption than conventional electric fans. Its twin blade system is designed to circulate air more effectively around the room than traditional fans. While typical fans use around 30W, the energy consumption of the GreenFan2 can be as low as 3W and on its strongest setting, it doesn’t exceed 17W. That means your entire yearly electric bill for the fan can cost only ¥192, compared to ¥38,000 you might consume with an air-conditioning unit. However, considering the GreenFan will set you back ¥34,800, you’ll only really be making savings the next year.

Eco Cute hot water heaters: Toshiba’s ESTIA heat pump hit the market at the end of last month. The ESTIA is just one of a long line of energy-efficient Eco Cute heat pumps that have been released onto the Japanese market in recent years. The units extract heat from the air, which it then converts into energy for heating water with. For every unit of electrical energy it uses, it extracts two units of energy from the ambient air temperature, consuming 66 percent less energy than a conventional water heater. Best of all some Eco Cute units can store hot water during blackouts. Though, like the GreenFan2, they’re more expensive than conventional water heaters, users tend to make the money back in electricity bill savings.

Panasonic Vertical Loading Washer Dryer: On sale from May 15, this machine uses less water and energy than other models: For an 8 kg wash it uses 2 liters less water than its competitors and 5 percent less energy in drying. To do this it uses a new “eco wash system” which combines powerful water jets and rotating blades that more effectively distribute water than other models. The dryer contains sensors that allow it to distinguish the temperature within the drum, allowing it to adjust it accordingly for more effective energy use.

An early warning system in every pocket

Friday, April 8th, 2011

The “bwoop, bwoop, bwoop!” of cell-phone earthquake alerts is enough to scare the bejeezus out of most people in the near vicinity, especially anyone who experienced the March 11 Tohoku-Kanto quake. A fantastic invention that beams info from Japan’s Meterological agency directly to your phone, the service can predict the occurrence of an earthquake from a few seconds up to a minute in advance. But does it have to be so damned terrifying? The makers of apps for Android and iPhones clearly think not.

Yurekuru kooru (tremor’s coming call) for the iPhone, available on iTunes, tinkles urgently (see video above) to announce the arrival of a tremor. Since the big one hit last month, followed by innumerable tremors, subscribers to the service have multiplied tenfold and downloads have now broken the 1 million mark: Testament to the popularity of the iPhone and to the feelings of uneasiness most Japanese are experiencing at the moment.

For Android users there’s the Namazu Sokuhou β (Catfish Report β). Users are able to choose their own warning noise; though it’s important to make sure it’s not too subtle, the service should be able to wake you up in the middle of the night after all. In Japanese mythology giant catfish living in mud underground were thought to be the cause of earthquakes, hence the catfish reference in the app’s title. Users should note that the app is still in beta.

Japan’s earthquake early-warning service predicts larger quakes on the basis of the preceding P-waves and sends messages out to phones after tremors are felt by over 1,000 seismographs throughout the country. Quick calculations are then done to predict the size of the subsequent quake and that figure is reported on the cell-phone screen as well as estimated time of impact. A detailed explanation of this sophisticated system can be read in this article in Time magazine.

Both of these apps are free to download. Users of AU, DoCoMo and SoftBank also receive free reports but don’t get much say in how their earthquake warning message is delivered. Comments on Twitter from jittery Japanese suggest these apps are filling a definite need: “I duck underneath the table every time I hear the warning. It’s like an air-raid siren,” UnConiglioNero states on Twitter.

Hanami dilemma: to jishuku or not jishuku

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

This year’s hanami in Tokyo is set to be one of unprecedented sobriety. In respect to the recent tragedy in the Tohoku region, the cherry-blossom-viewing parties traditionally lubricated with liberal amounts of alcohol are being discouraged by park authorities. Many officials are calling for citizens to show self-restraint (jishuku).

Revelers from hanami past (Yoshiaki Miura photo/The Japan Times)

As our sister blog Yen For Living pointed out, this seemingly well-intentioned approach makes little economic sense and is only adding to the woes of the service industry, which is already suffering from rolling blackouts and shorter business hours.

However, according to Tokyo Walker, one izakaya chain is taking a unique approach the dilemma of whether we should revel or not. The Takada-ya chain of pubs, which has 54 branches nationwide, launched a special party course menu from April 4.  The course, which includes dishes such as tempura and shabu shabu, costs ¥3,000 for groups of four and upward, and ¥500 yen of that will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross and other such organizations.

Takada-ya is already participating in the relief effort. With the cooperation of other businesses they’re working to distribute food to those in the disaster-struck areas. In Hitachinaka in Ibaraki Prefecture on March 20 and March 30 in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture they served up warm soba noodles. They plan to do the same in the future in Fukushima and elsewhere in Miyagi.

Takada-ya isn’t the only company to find a loophole in the jishuku guidelines.  American Bar Oldies, in Katsushika-ku, Tokyo, will be hosting a drinking party to raise money for victims of the disaster on Sat from 7pm (reservations are necessary). According to the bar owner’s blog, his high school friend, who was getting a bit sick of the atmosphere of self-restraint, suggested the idea.

Not everyone believes it’s necessary to do your drinking indoors out of respect. A sake brewer in Iwate has made a video in which he calls for people to enjoy drinking sake made from the regions hit by the earthquake to stimulate economic recovery. Elsewhere on the web, a site called Save the Tohoku Nihonshu has been launched to showcase the sake of the disaster-hit breweries.

So for those about say “kampai” under the blossoms, do it with respect and buy a nice bottle of Tohoku tipple from your local sakaya.

Creative shelters bring privacy to Tohoku evacuees

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

ShelterBox tents are helping families regain privacy in evacuation centers in Iwate Prefecture

A UN report on March 19 stated that there were 376,907 people taking shelter in evacuation centers in the areas affected by the recent tsunami. While that number goes down daily as refugees are housed by relatives and friends, the numbers of people living in cramped conditions at evacuation centers is still high. Fortunately for some evacuees, temporary schemes are being implened to immediately improve their privacy and the temporary housing projects that are currently being constructed.

Architect Shigeru Ban‘s disaster relief project aims to tackle the immediate problem of privacy. “For the first few days, it’s O.K., but then people suffer because there’s no privacy between families. It normally takes a few months before they can move into temporary government housing,” Ban said in a recent interview in the New York Times. Ban’s solution is simple: Canvas sheets are hung from a frame constructed of rolled paper poles to create a partitioned area in which families can retreat from the public eye. Financed with donations from around the world, the kits are shipped out to evacuations centers in the affected areas. Details about how to contribute can be found on the Shigeru Ban website.

U.K.-based charity ShelterBox are sending out emergency kits that contain a tent, blankets, tools, crayons and coloring books for kids and cooking utensils. “Our tents are being used by young families as a private space and a sleeping area. This is incredibly important for morale and is giving the families back a sense of dignity,” says ShelterBox Field Operations Specialist Mark Pearson on the charity’s website. Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, both in Iwate Prefecture, are areas that have received ShelterBox kits so far.

In Rikuzentakata temporary housing for the 1,000 people currently living in evacuation centers is already being constructed. According to Bloomberg News, pre-fabricated shelters like these are constructed by Japan Prefabricated Construction and Suppliers Association, a group that includes big name house builders like Sekisui House and Daiwa House Industry.

Another possibility for future housing looks to be eco-warrior Michael Reynolds’ Earthship. According to MNM.com, earthquake resistant homes made from recycled materials that support sustainable living could possibly be constructed in affected areas in the future. Reynolds has previously overseen the construction of Earthships for victims of the Haiti earthquake and is considering the same for Japan. “Earthship Biotecture is currently gathering information on getting to Japan,” Reynolds wrote in a strongly worded anti-nuclear statement on Earthship Biotechture’s website.

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