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Big (only) in Japan? Oshibori

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

Japan prides itself not only on cleanliness but also a heightened appreciation of the senses, and nowhere do these two meet more pleasurably than in oshibori – the moist hand towels that are used before meals. People living abroad may be familiar with this practice from sushi restaurants, but in Japan they are everywhere – at restaurants, coffee shops, Internet cafes, hotel lobbies, apartments and homes. There doesn’t always have to be a meal – sometimes oshibori are given to visitors at an office. In general the towels are heated, although during the summer months, cold towels are often used instead.

The initial goal of an oshibori is uncontroversial – the user takes the towel, unrolls it, wipes his or her hands and enjoys the steamy sensation that seems to clean and renew. Anyone who has ever used an oshibori, however, knows that the next thought most people have is, “I must have this wonderful sensation on the entirety of my body.” This is where the controversy begins. Many wipe their face with the towel, some go as far as rubbing down their neck and a few are bold enough to unbutton the top button on their shirt and wipe down their chest.

While this seems like a good idea, especially in the summer when one is often covered in sweat, Oshibori Ohkoku (Oshibori Kingdom) provides very clear limits in their description of oshibori manners: “When wiping the face, press the oshibori to the face only so that the warmth may be felt. Never wipe anywhere other than the hands or face!”

To assess the quality of your oshibori, take a whiff. Does it smell funky? You may have a moldy oshibori. If you smell a minty, floral or citrus scent, then you can rest assured that your oshibori has been treated with an aroma to heighten the sensory pleasure.

Perhaps due to hygienic reasons, perhaps because of convenience, many places use disposable oshibori that come in plastic wrap. These are similar to wet wipes and are also often included with bento lunches and with purchases at convenience stores across the country.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori have also created a huge industry associated with it. There are companies that collect, clean and deliver oshibori; trays to hold the towels; machines to keep the towels heated; and an izakaya in Utsunomiya has even trained a monkey to deliver the towels to customers.

While oshibori regulations might seem strict at first, Oshibori Ohkoku does know how to have fun: While you shouldn’t wipe up spills or clean your mouth of food with an oshibori, you can fold them into neat shapes as long as you return them to their original position. “Oshibori art” has generated many blogs, including “Sasa Blog,” where you can learn how to fold your oshibori into a Totoro.

How big are oshibori in your neck of the woods? As big as in Japan?

Photo: Charles Haynes (top), Daiji Hirata (bottom)

Tachiyomi: Do it on your device

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Browse the latest magazine with Seven Net Shopping's tachi-yomi app.

Browse the latest magazine with Seven Net Shopping’s tachi-yomi app.

Japan came a little late to the Twitter party, but it has quickly made up for lost time.  And it’s not just individual users that have been fueling the Twitter boom.  Forward-thinking Japanese companies have also embraced the micro-blogging revolution in a big way, by developing Twitter marketing campaigns, offering Twi-wari discounts, incorporating Twitter into social games, and mining Twitter for valuable customer feedback.

The latest Japanese practice to be Twitterized is the fine art of tachiyomi (立ち読み) – browsing comics and magazines for free before you purchase them.

Tachiyomi, which literally means “stand and read,” can be observed 24/7 at one of the over 40,000 convenience stores or many of the bookstores in Japan. Most stores will allow customers to stand in front of the magazine rack and read through the comics with impunity.

Yamasa Shoyu, a soy sauce company, has taken the term and applied it to the manga-based marketing campaign for their new disposable 200-ml packs of soy sauce. The series is titled “Soy Sauce Magician” and is written by the manga team Masayuki Izumi, which consists of writer Haruki Izumi and artist Masayuki Kusumi, who have released several food-themed manga. By scanning a barcode on the product with their mobile phones, customers can finish reading a comic, the beginning of which has been posted on Twitpic.

Seven Elevens will start selling the packs of soy sauce on Aug. 9, and they will be available at other convenience store chains from Aug. 23. Beyond Twitpic, the two-comic series is being promoted on  Twitter and YouTube. While the comic is mostly just a silly ode to shoyu, highlighting the various uses of the miracle sauce, Yamasa Shoyu gets points for spirit.

Yamasa Shoyu has released a mini-comic they've termed "tachi-yomi." It highlights various uses of soy sauce.

Yamasa Shoyu has released a mini-comic they’ve termed “tachi-yomi.” It highlights various uses of soy sauce.

Seven Net Shopping, the online arm of Seven and iHoldings that runs the Seven Eleven convenience stores, offers a more realistic digital version of tachiyomi for iPad and iPhone with their new app “Seven de Tachiyomi.” The free app is a digital bookshelf where you can browse popular magazines (such as Brutus, Pia, Real Design and Pen) and even a few books. The number of preview pages varies by magazines from three to 20 or so. Unfortunately that’s as far as the digitalization goes – customers looking for more will have to order a paper version of the magazine from the Seven Net Shopping site or, ironically, be forced to get up and haul themselves to the closest brick-and-mortar konbini to buy a copy

Big (only) in Japan? Rooftop beer gardens

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Hankyu Top Beer Garden

Quaffing brews in the beer garden on top of Hankyu department store

The global economy is in shambles. Summer temperatures and humidity have reached record levels all across the northern hemisphere. In Japan this means two things for certain – an increase in the sales of odorless underwear and an increase in the sales of cheap no- and low-malt beer and beer-like beverages. However, this year real beer has also made a small comeback thanks to a boom in beer gardens.

While beer gardens are a Bavarian tradition (the term comes from the German “Biergarten”), the Japanese have been at the game since 1953, when one debuted on top of the New Tokyo Osaka Daiichi Seimei Building, and they’ve added their own unique touches to the fun. Technically beer gardens can and do happen on the ground (or below ground, in which case they are called “beer terraces”) or in any open area with enough space, but in Japan there is a romantic attachment to ones held on the roofs of department stores and other tall buildings. This makes them top draws in late summer after the rainy season has passed and when fireworks season has started.

Generally the drink service at beer gardens is “nomihodai” (unlimited refills) for a set period of time (90 minutes to two hours), and often food is included as well, putting the ¥3,000-¥4,000 ticket within the budgets of many consumers.

This year Yomiuri and Nikkei Shimbun have both noted that the customer base has also diversified. While the rooftop atmospheres lit with lanterns evoke a Showa-era scene filled with smoke and businessmen, more and more women are taking advantage of the offerings, and some beer gardens are offering healthier, low-calorie fare that incorporates hijiki seaweed and burdock as well as sweets such as tai-yaki. Nikkei Trendy Net also noted that there are more women working and therefore probably more women who want to take advantage of the liberating atmosphere of beer gardens as a form of stress relief.

On a linguistic sidenote, in Japanese beer is normally written “biiru,” but when put next to the Japanese “gaaden,” it is written and spoken “bia.” Japanese commenters on Yahoo! note that this is because it’s closer to the English pronunciation of the word “beer,” but that begs the question why it isn’t always pronounced like that.

Photo: Karl Baron

Pulse Rate: ikyu.com

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Ikyu

While not exactly offering bargain basement prices, travel discounts can be found at Ikyu.com

In general there is a hesitancy in Japan to discount prices for goods and services. The price for a six pack of beer, for example, is same price as six individual beers. Landlords are wary to reduce rents even to fill up rooms that may be empty for a long period of time, and hotels rarely give price breaks – as reported by Yen For Living, even a drastic reduction in highway tolls did not increase overnight stays for travelers. The Internet, however, has at least helped consumers pinpoint the companies that have lowered their prices, which in turn has helped stimulate competition.

Recently the website 一休.COM (www.ikyu.com) made it to the No. 4 spot of  Goo keywords, perhaps because it was being inundated by visitors trying to take advantage of the site’s 10-year anniversary specials and other summer specials during the current summer vacation. While the site does provide discounted hotels, it’s not exactly targeted at budget travelers – some of the rooms go for as much as ¥33,000/night for two people. There is an English site to take advantage of (which even includes a frequently updated blog about Japan), but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to have the site’s full line of rooms, so using the Japanese side is recommended.

Budget travelers can look to Rakuten Travel for a larger selection of cheaper digs. Rakuten is also equipped with an English site, but if you can navigate the Japanese, you can take advantage of the full-featured search engine to narrow down housing by station, maximum price and distance from station. By searching strategically, you can find rooms at fantastic value. For example, a semi-double at City Hotel Hiroki at Kamata Station (a station that offers a decent amount of edible, drinkable and shop-able entertainment and isn’t far from central Tokyo on the Keihin-Tohoku Line) runs ¥5,400/night for two people this upcoming weekend. (If your name happens to be Hiroki, you can take advantage of the special discount rate of ¥5,000/night!)

Other websites are bringing down the price of goods. Kakaku.com has long offered significant discounts on a variety of different merchandise. For those looking to stay out of the sun while shopping for groceries, the bulk liquor store Kakuyasu has an impressive online presence that offers free delivery 365 days a year to Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka on any order, even if it’s as little as a single can of beer. Their prices are nothing to scoff at either – the Suntory Premium Malts costs a mere ¥220/can for a 24-pack, and Asahi Super Dry is ¥193/can. Although the bulk of the products are alcohol-related, there is a decent selection of snacks and basic foodstuffs. You can get your salsa and tortilla chip fix and, if you’ve got the moral and intestinal fortitude for it, try some whale curry.

iPhones become ice-breakers at gokon dating parties

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

gokon

iPhone apps like “Shuffle de Gokon” are helping singles make connections – this will mix up your seating arrangements.

After an initial dormancy, the iPhone has boomed in Japan over the past two years and attracted hordes of app developers. Japan Pulse has previously reported on iPhone apps for car sharing, moms and moms-to-be, streaming concerts, children’s books and business cards, but now app store dealers have infiltrated the gokon – the Japanese group blind date.

Gokon (合コン) is a contracted form of the word godo konpa (合同コンパ), which literally means “combined company.” For a gokon, generally one girl and one guy will reserve a location and agree to bring along a set number of their friends (of the same sex) for a combined date. The goal? Get your drink on and woo/be wooed.

iPhone apps and Japanese blogs have found many ways to use the ubiquitous phone while at a gokon. What Japan Thinks has an English-language rundown of a Goo survey that asked site visitors which apps are best suited for use at a gokon.

Standard gokon etiquette states that initial seating arrangements should be men on one side of a table and women on the other. “Gokon de Shuffle” gets things off to a running start with seating randomization, a fun way to mix up the evening. Will it put you next to the girl of your dreams? Or the friend she brought with her who is . . . nice. This was the highest rated app in the survey.

There are plenty more ice-breakers at the App Store. “Touch Scan Pro” and “Love Touch” both offer love compatibility tests where users give fingerprints in exchange for readings. (The former also includes lie detection, an IQ scan and a horoscope reader.) While apps like this may claim to offer services, in the end they are really just plain fun, and the Love Touch site rightly warns users not to take the results too seriously: “This is really random . . . please don’t fight.”

Once the beverages start to work their magic, conversation topics get more daring. “Dice Talk” helps catalyze that process with a little Truth-or-Dare style sets of questions, with three different modes for friends, significant others or gokon.

Clearly the goal of all these apps is to induce some sort of interaction. A group of young adults huddled around an iPhone on a date, however, unfortunately recalls the world author Gary Shteyngart describes in “Lenny Hearts Eunice,” an excerpt from his upcoming novel “Super Sad True Love Story” which details a future in which people lie next to each other and, in lieu of actual interaction, stare at their “äppäräti” – futuristic iPhone-like entertainment devices.

But not all of this can be blamed on the iPhone – people have been always been searching for shortcuts to meaningful interaction, and some of these apps only mimic things that exist in the real world. One Japanese blog suggests using “PullPullPic,” an app that lets users alter photographs – not unlike purikura, which has existed for decades.

Passion for ‘garage kit’ models mounts at Wonder Festival

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Wonder Festival showcases some of the top garage kits - handmade models of characters from anime and manga.

Wonder Festival showcases some of the top garage kits – handmade models of characters from anime and manga.

The Japanese are renowned for otaku-levels of devotion to their hobbies, whatever they may be, and this is especially true for “garage kits,” plastic models of anime and game figures that are constructed by hand and are as professional as products produced by major companies.

Garage kits, like anime, came of age in the 1980s. The growth of the hobby has been channeled through Wonder Festival (Won-fes, for short), a biannual convention where garage kit artists have been displaying and selling their wares since 1984. In the beginning, the kits occupied a legal gray market, which led to a uniquely Japanese moment of corporate compromise – the invention of “day-of copyrights” (tojitsu hanken, 当日版権). These copyrights are issued through the event, which is hosted by Kaiyodo, a company that produces garage kits, figures and other toys. Dealers who apply can receive a copyright that allows them to sell and display only accepted models only during the event. They can’t take reservations during the event and ship them later. They can’t sell models that haven’t been accepted. The copyright ends when the event does. This year there will be 1,900 dealers selling their kits on July 25.

If the ’80s was the boom of garage kits, which created a so-called “garage kit spirit” where artists aimed to create the most detailed models possible, then the ’90s was when it became more corporate. Notably, the popularity of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” baptized a generation with the breasts of Asuka and Rei, the two main female characters from the legendary sci-fi anime. Almost singlehandedly, the show increased the number of casual fans of garage kits, fans who were more interested in seeing the characters they liked (in revealing positions, nonetheless) and less interested in the quality the models. Additionally, corporations have taken advantage of the event to release limited edition, already completed models that pander to non-fanatics.

In response to the influx, the label “Wonder Showcase,” closely connected with parent organization Wonder Festival, in 1999 began to highlight some of the highest quality garage kits. For each show they select several artists and profile them along with their works. They help promote the artists and put them in a great position to meet people within the industry during the show, but don’t force them into a management contract – the goal of the showcase is to promote the “garage kit spirit” that initially sparked the boom. Due to the questionable legality of their hobby, artists often use pseudonyms to hide their true identity.

The event was held at Tokyo Big Site until 2008, when an elevator malfunction caused injuries to visitors and drew a surprising amount of attention from the national press. Since 2009, Makuhari Messe has hosted the event.  This year the festival takes place July 25, from 10 a.m.  to 5 p.m.

To follow the coverage from abroad, Danny Choo‘s Web site might be one of your best bets. Here’s his roundup of Wonder Fest 2008.

KFC goes for finger-lickin’ health-conscious goodness

Friday, July 9th, 2010

KFC is set to debut a new health-conscious menu featuring Oven Roast chicken and an array of sandwiches at it's Shibuya-dori location.

KFC is set to debut a new health-conscious menu featuring Oven Roasted chicken and an array of sandwiches at its Shibuya-dori location.

Earlier this year McDonalds rebranded 13 of its stores in Tokyo locations, such as Shibuya and Roppongi, giving the inside and outside appearance of the stores a facelift, perhaps to better match their swankier Japanese surroundings. More recently, Nikkei Trendy is reporting that Kentucky Fried Chicken is undergoing a more drastic rebranding of its own, pitting the Colonel and his Christmas chicken giant against Ronald McDonald’s fast food empire.

The first KFC restaurant debuted in Japan in November 1970 in Nagoya and quickly gained popularity, riding a boom in Western culture that can be partially attributed to the Expo ’70, the World’s Fair held in Osaka. Since then KFC in Japan has become strongly connected with Christmas, thanks to a 1974 marketing campaign that was inspired by a group of foreigners who, unable to find turkey, decided to celebrate Christmas dinner with fried chicken.

KFC in Japan has long been forced to innovate to survive the cut-throat fast-food industry. With this new marketing campaign, however, KFC clearly wants wants to tap into the health-conscious market of women and young people. The centerpiece of their experimental “next generation” menu, available only at the Shibuya location, is Oven Roasted ChickenAdvertising material eschews french fries, giving the option instead of salad and tea. Included is a marinade sauce heavy on bell peppers. In addition to a variety of salads, the menu also includes a Brazer (ブレイザー) chicken fillet sandwich, a broccoli chicken roll and an avocado shrimp sandwich. This move to healthier fare is ironic given that the U.S. KFC is currently hawking the Double Down, a sandwich that replaces bread with two cuts of fried chicken.

KFC might be best served imitating Subway rather than McDonalds: The sandwich maker has been successful with vegetable-centric advertising.

KFC might be best served imitating Subway rather than McDonalds: The sandwich maker has been successful with vegetable-centric advertising.

Nikkei Trendy seems impressed with the new items and equally so with the décor, which is sleek and chic, not unlike the McDonalds changes. While the main opponent of KFC may be McDonald’s, the company might be best advised to look closely at the marketing campaigns of Subway. The sandwich maker has firmly established the fact that in Japan, Subway is about vegetables. The company name is always given as “Subway (of vegetables)” (野菜のSubway), and their slogan is “Put vegetables into every day” (毎日に野菜をはさもう). It is unlikely, however, that KFC’s changes will be able to match Subway’s commitment to freshness: On July 6, the company opened a new location called the Yasai Lab Marunouchi Building in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. The “Lab” will feature organic vegetables grown hyrdoponically on-site. Fresh veggies from the in-store gardens will be available starting in October.

The Shibuya-dori KFC location will debut the new menu on Friday, July 9.

Who will feed the Haruki Murakami fans online?

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Shinchosha's Web site for "1Q84" is mostly a marketing gimmick but also has a map marked with important locations from the novel.

Shinchosha’s Web site for “1Q84″ is mostly a marketing gimmick but also has a map marked with important locations from the novel.

Haruki Murakami has been an early adopter of technology for quite a while. In “Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words,” Jay Rubin describes how in 1987, after struggling with written copies of “Norwegian Wood,” Murakami made the switch to a word processor. In 1990, while writing at Princeton as a Visiting Scholar, he upgraded to a computer. Even his Web presence was forward thinking: From 1996 to 1999 he wrote a Web site for Asahi Shimbun, the core of which was correspondence with readers. His responses to reader questions have been anthologized in several volumes. So it comes as a surprise then that in recent years Murakami’s Internet presence has been largely corporate, disappointing and at times even ignored.

While the Asahi Web site is now offline, publishing house Shinchosha created a new website for Murakami’s most recent novel, “1Q84,” this past March. The site is, for the most part, a marketing scheme. It includes “blog parts” (an embeddable jpg animation to advertise the novel on websites), a list of Murakami’s previous works (conveniently only those published by Shinchosha) and a blog, which is run by Shinchosha employees. The blog began in March and counted down until the release of the third volume of “1Q84″ in April, along the way highlighting the variations in printed advertisements for “1Q84″ as well as the release of new paperback versions of Murakami’s older novels.

The site does offer two points of interaction for readers. The first is a Google map marked with locations from the novel, allowing readers to follow along with the adventures of Aomame and Tengo, the book’s main protagonists. The second, and more notable, is a collection of “1Q84″-themed illustrations provided by readers and fans and released every month. Each of the illustrations is the reader’s version of the letter Q and they range from weird to cute, much like the content of Murakami’s fiction.

While the Japanese site is surprisingly corporate, it does have its points of interest. The English site, too, started with a bang but is starting to show its cobwebs. Random House created the site in 2005 and included links to reviews and resources as well as a screensaver for download. The most interesting resource may have been a roundtable between Murakami translators Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, but even that had previously been available on the Random House Web site. The blog-like News section showed promise at first, posting links to forum discussions, information about release dates and other Murakami-related news. Sadly, the section has been ignored for the past few years: There have been no updates since July 2008, and the only updates in 2008 (all two of them) were notifications about the publication of Murakami’s running memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.”

Murakami's English Web site has gone by the wayside: It hasn't been updated for nearly two years.

Murakami’s English Web site has gone by the wayside: It hasn’t been updated for nearly two years.

The most surprising Web-based gaff, however, is the lack of an official Twitter presence. The new medium of social interaction is still relatively young, so we can probably excuse the 61-year-old author for not being aware of how he is being represented there, but it’s almost inexcusable that his publishers have allowed Twitterers to host @haruki_murakami (English) and @Murakami_Haruki (Japanese). (The latter has over 60,000 followers!) Both are unverified and post quotes from his works and other witticisms that fit Murakami’s personality. One example from the Japanese account is “yare yare,” a phrase that many of the author’s narrators use as a sigh of resigned acceptance; clearly these must be accounts run by fans of the author who are having a laugh. The English account has only posted a dozen or so tweets, but the Japanese account updates in spurts once a week.

This is especially surprising given the fact that there are clearly people keeping an eye on Murakami’s Web representation. In February 2010, Will, author of the blog Wednesday Afternoon Picnic, was posting his own translations from a collection of short stories titled “Yoru no kumozaru” (“Night of the Spider Monkey”). He was contacted by representatives of Murakami and asked to remove the translations as they were unauthorized and “amount to copyright infringement.” While it’s understandable that Murakami would seek to protect his representation in English, it’s also ironic given that Dimitry Kovalenin released his Russian translation of “A Wild Sheep Chase” online in 1996 before he was able to have it published in 1998.

This Murakami Web paradox shows that in the last decade Murakami may have withdrawn even further from the rest of the world. He had long been known as reclusive, especially after 1987 when “Norwegian Wood” thrust him into the pop cultural spotlight, but the real shame is that editors and publishers around him have not provided Web-savvy advice about how to create an effective Internet identity.

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