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Pop goes the cash register

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Photo credit: 177/Flickr

Photo credit: 177/Flickr

When supercool French music/fashion label Kitsune opens its temporary storefront in Omotesando next week, it will be the latest brand to dot Tokyo’s cityscape with a pop-up shop, those small, ephemeral retail venues that hip brands erect in high-traffic hot spots. The idea of a pop-up retail is usually to generate buzz and give the unsuspecting consumers who stumble onto the place the illusion of inside knowledge. Pop-up stores frequently sell limited-edition goods, as well, so an added exclusivity is built right in.

Last year saw a number of successful campaigns: Louis Vuitton built an underground lair in Ikebukuro while Ace Hotel set up an enclave inside Isetan Department store. Brand [RED] set up shop inside Harajuku’s Gap outlet while forward-thinking architecture firm, Klein Dytham, designed a temporary gallery, bar and livehouse at the top of the H&M building for Vitamin Water’s Japan launch.

Pop-up retail has been around for a while. Long enough, in fact, that scenesters like Kitsune now feel they need to differentiate themselves for the concept. They’re also incorporating locally-made materials, which will add value for many of Japan’s shopaholics. Some say the pop-up shop idea is played out, or rather becoming common enough to lose its edge. Fine with me. Perhaps it’s time for the pop-up shop to go family friendly.

Japan’s chocolatiers search for the sweet spot

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Left to Right: Sapporo's Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory's Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi's Chocolat Cocktail

Left to right: Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi’s Chocolat Cocktail

With weeks to go until Valentine’s Day (and its younger Japanese cousin, White Day), the barrage of new chocolate products and chocolate marketing has begun. Japan’s 285,000-ton-a year habit pales in comparison to western consumption, but the sweet stuff plays an major role in the country’s snack and dessert markets, as well as in societal traditions such as the o-chugen, o-seibo and omiyage. What was once considered a yearly social obligation for many women is now changing, but people continue to buy cacao products (including luxury items), if for no one else but themselves.

Recipes are not restricted to candy, however. A variety of chocolate-flavored beverages are now available at convenience stores. Japan Pulse’s independent and unscientific taste test found that the flavor of Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer fits the winter palate quite well (although some disagree), but the brew loses points for being happoshu instead of proper beer.

Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda was surprisingly drinkable, but the sensory equivalent of a trompe-l’œil for the tongue: How could something that goes down like Perrier taste like a Cadbury? W. David Marx over at CNNGo postulates that the drink might be have been engineered this way to appeal to the sweet tooth who watches their weight. Clear as club-soda with an equally clean finish, Chocolate Sparkling lacks the viscous, creamy texture one associates with chocolate beverages.

Continue reading about chocolate in Japan →

Augmented Reality taking it to another level

Monday, January 18th, 2010

The hype surrounding augmented reality (AR) technology is often dwarfed by coverage of 3D television,  but that may change once both are put into practice on a broad scale. AR could prove to change lives more profoundly, not only by locating subway stations or inviting Robert Downey Jr. into your cubicle, but also by providing information about anything or anyone at which you point your device.

The Sekai Camera iPhone app grabbed headlines in Japan last year, and several new Japanese applications may indicate what to expect in the coming decade. The Red Cross is using face-recognition software and anime hair to attract blood donors in Akihabara, and the pin@clip application is now being tested in Shibuya, allowing iPhone users to get real-time information on shopping and entertainment options in the buildings that users pass by.

Continue reading about augmented reality in Japan →

“Ryomaden” romanticizes (and monetizes) history

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Every year NHK, Japan’s broadcasting behemoth, pours money into a year-long historical television series known as the “taiga drama.” The subject this year is Sakamoto Ryoma,  a 19th-century samurai often credited with bringing Japan into the modern age. History often portrays Sakamoto not only as a vital component in the country’s unification, but also as a “Renaissance Samurai,” a forward thinker who embraced new inventions (Smith & Wesson pistols, western-style boots) and new ideas (industrialization, the democratic process). By the end of the year, his image will be burnished even further, since the series’ starring role is being played by Masaharu Fukuyama, a handsome and extremely popular celebrity known for his clean-cut image.

Pairing Fukuyama with Sakamoto will prove to be a lucrative mix, and many in the tourism and entertainment industries have been prepping for a windfall of Ryoma-related commerce. The official Sakamoto Memorial Museum in his native Kochi prefecture has been inundated with hundreds of licensing requests, and regional tourism agencies have projected over 20,000 fans signing up for package tours of famous sites from his life. Telecommunications powerhouse, Softbank, recently used Sakamoto imagery in their very popular commercial series (granted, Softbank’s been a fan for years). And let’s not even get started on the video games, theme restaurants and custom-made boots that already trade on his name.

Yes, “Ryomaden” will help push 2009′s “samurai boom” into the next decade. From undergarments to soda to high-street fashion houses, echoes of Japan’s feudal past continue to convince a large – and increasingly female – audience to open their wallets. Does this stem from a national longing for heroes, a reaction to Japan’s evolving gender identity issues or something else? Hard to say, but at this pace we should expect boy bands sporting chonmage by summertime.

Trends in Japan 2009: celebrity drug busts

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The children's decongestants above were not the only powders on the street, apparently

The children’s decongestants seen above were apparently not the only widely distributed powders in Japan this year

One doesn’t have to be an ardent news junkie to know that drugs and drug busts featured prominently in Japan’s headlines this year. From soldiers to pop stars, 2009 will be remembered as a year of disillusionment for many of the Japanese public regarding the “purity” of their heroes.

Still reeling from the marijuana scandal that began with Russian sumo stars in 2008, the search for other pot-smoking wrestlers continued in January, resulting in the first native Japanese to fall victim to the purge (he apparently smoked blunts). All wrestlers were subjected to a number of drug tests, most of which produced nothing. As the scandal unfolded, coverage of Japan’s “Reefer Madness” grew, with statistics showing that use of and arrests involving the devil weed were on the rise in the archipelago. Interestingly enough, as Jake Adelstein explains, it’s not a crime to use marijuana in Japan, but it is a crime to possess it (a retired cop once told him “don’t smoke more than you can eat”).

Not the case with “stimulants,” the catch-all phrase used for hard synthetic drugs and the real source of Japan’s drug problems. The stoner sumo fiasco was completely overshadowed this summer by two stories that continue to reverberate across country. Two celebrities – Noriko Sakai and Manabu Oshio – were accused of using meth and ecstasy, respectively. Both cases were a muckracker’s wet dream, made even more tantalizing to the press when placed in context. On the surface, Oshio’s story was the juiciest, since he had allegedly shared his stash with a bar hostess, who subsequently died of unknown causes. If that wasn’t enough to pique national interest, the event in question happened in a swank Roppongi Hills apartment owned by Mika Noguchi, the founder of lingerie giant, Peach John, Japan’s answer to Victoria’s Secret.

Continue reading about celebrity drug busts in 2009 →

Price drops can (literally) be music to your ears

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

As the 2000′s come to a close, it doesn’t take reams of market analysis to realize that the last 10 years saw the dismantling the music industry as we knew it. However, a recent series of products may be an indicator of what’s to come in the near future. Of course, music-making games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band and various iPhone applications are making a significant impact, but if devices like Yamaha’s Tenori-On enter the mainstream in the next 10 years, it could cement the next decade as when the non-musical made themselves heard.

The original Tenori-On was released in the spring of 2007 to a limited audience. The 16×16 LED buttons correspond to musical scales that, when pressed in any order, create a catchy tune with visual accompaniment. The originally prohibitive price tag (well over ¥100,000) meant that this toy/tool would be used solely by the rich or technophillic. However, two recently-released versions have made the device much more affordable.

The Tenori-On Orange trades in the magnesium-alloy body for plastic and eliminates the removable/rechargeable battery while leaving the original operations intact. The price tag has dropped considerably (around ¥80,000), but for the frugally minded, a stripped-down model now goes for around ¥5,000.

The Bliptronic 5000 LED Synthesizer is not made by Yamaha, but will (hopefully) garner a response next year in the form of their own budget version. Bliptronic’s simplified version has half the input buttons and does not visualize sound like its more sophisticated cousins, but along with the approachable price point, his low-end model is being marketed as a device meant to be played with others instead of as a stand-alone toy, which may help it go far in the ever-present social media landscape. And as you can see from the video above, what’s not to like?

Your move, Yamaha.

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Up and running in Japan

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

"Jogging" by Masahiro Hayata

“Jogging” by Masahiro Hayata

A few weeks ago, a neighbor asked me and a dozen other friends and acquaintances to help him get a spot at the Tokyo Marathon. Participants are selected by lottery, he explained, and by drawing numbers for him we could ostensibly increase his chances of pounding the pavement next March.

He needs all the help he can get: With Japan’s “running boom” arguably at its peak, races around the country are filling up faster than ever. The 2009 Tokyo Marathon saw 226,378 applicants competing for 30,000 spots: a 68% increase from the year before, and this year’s Peace Marathon in Hiroshima had around 2,000 more participants than 2008. What may be most significant about these numbers is that a majority of these new applicants are first-timers and women. Japanese running clubs are also seeing their numbers swell with new runners, especially those clubs with membership fees that offer professional coaching.

The market has been following closely. Now Nike and Asics have flagship stores in the trendy Harajuku district, and one of Asics’ star designers has broken off to start his own line. According to Brett Larner of Japan Running News, all the major running shoe makers are opening specialty shops and starting their own running clubs. “Upper management-level people from two major brands told me that Japan is the only place in the world where the running market has continued to grow during the recession,” he says, adding that Runners Magazine just moved into new offices last month, due in part to the spike in interest. What’s more,  he explains: “Non-running lifestyle and fashion magazines now regularly feature articles on running geared towards young, fashionable, independent women, the largest demographic within the current Japanese running boom.”

Continue reading about running in Japan →

The Complaints Choir: Denounce to the Music

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Japanese people are not known for airing their grievances in public, but a new project has arrived in Tokyo offering locals a new way to speak their mind. The Complaints Choir is the brainchild of Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, a Finnish/German artist duo who conduct workshops and performances where the daily gripes of a city or society are written down and then sung with musical accompaniment.

The Complaints Choir concept has seen over 20 different incarnations around the globe since 2005. They recently hit Japan, and the final works can be seen in an exhibition at the Mori Museum running until February 2010. One of the most interesting aspects of the Complaints Choir is that it is comprised of ordinary people and is completely voluntary. “If we . . . make an open invitation, and if no one wants to take part, then that’s a clear indication that this project is not needed,” explained Kalleinen in an interview with Tokyo Art Beat.

Anyone can take part, she says, but no one is asked directly to ensure that only those who truly want to participate are involved. Complaints made in Japan varied from rude behavior on trains and eating habits to grooming issues.

If you could complain about Tokyo life through song, what would your gripes be? And what musical genre would be the best vehicle? Add your list of grievances in the comments below.

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