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2012: The year in buildings

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

There was a lot going up in Tokyo in 2012, most notably Tokyo Skytree. It really felt like the landscape of the city shifted this year, more than it has in the nearly 10 years since Roppongi Hills opened.

Trendy magazine ranked Tokyo Skytree as the biggest new-development hit of the year, noting that some 20 million people visited the tower within the first four months after it opened to the public on May 22. In addition to the tower, a shopping center and a half dozen hotels opened up around it – more concentrated, large-scale development than the area east of the Sumida River has seen in decades, if not ever. The recreational complex is called Solamachi (“skytown”), and it was named one of Japan’s top 10 buzzwords for 2012.

Trendy also had a good roundup of other construction milestones of the past year, and some impressive statistics – proving (as if it needed to be proved) just how much Tokyoites love new things.

Mitsui Outlet Park Kisarazu

This mega outlet mall, with 171 shops, opened on April 13 just across Tokyo Bay in Chiba — on the less-visited “uchibo” (inner) coast. As a result, use of the Aqua Line (the toll road that traverses the bay) doubled on weekends for the first half of the year.

Diver City Tokyo Plaza

Odaiba’s latest shopping center, filled with fast fashion brands, opened just a few days later, on April 19. Within the first two months, 4,000,000 people had paid a visit. Diver City did get a little help from a great big guest of honor — a 1:1 scale model of Gundam, which demonstrated the mainstream marketability of anime.

Shibuya Hikarie

This 34-story glass tower, which opened on April 26, is a big deal. It’s the first in a series of redevelopment projects that Tokyu Corp has planned for Shibuya over the next decade to bring moneyed sophisticates (read: shoppers older than Shibuya girls) back to the neighborhood. By the end of the first five months, 10,000,000 people had visited Hikarie and sales were 20% higher than projected.

Tokyo Station

On Oct. 1, Tokyo Station unveiled the results of a painstaking renovation project that saw its domes – destroyed in WWII air raids – finally restored. During the first week of October, passengers using Tokyo Station increased by 140%.

With all of this, next year is likely to feel dull in comparison. Or will it? 2013 will see the continued renaissance of the Marunouchi area, with the opening of the JP Tower in March, which incorporates the original 1933 Japan Post Office facade and promises nearly 100 shops. In April, Kabuki-za will reopen after a three-year renovation, and Mitsui has another outlet mall planned for the summer, also in Chiba.

Japan’s top 10 buzzwords for 2012

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

And the winner is . . .  wairudo darō (wild, isn’t it? ワイルドだろぉ).

Every year Jiyu Kokuminsha, which publishes an annual tome of new words, selects its top buzzwords – or more often than not, catchphrases — for the year. And today the committee picked Sugi-chan’s profound words as the year’s best.

A popular comedian, Sugi-chan (real name Eiji Sugiyama) is known for his tough-guy parodies. In September he broke his back while filming a stunt for a TV Asahi variety show, so maybe he’s also getting a sympathy vote here.

Still, it’s a far cry from last year’s winner and symbol of national pride, Nadeshiko Japan, the women’s soccer team.

Here’s the rest of the top 10 (chosen from an original pool of 50):

iPS saibō (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, iPS 細胞): The discovery – of how to turn ordinary skin cells into stem cells – that earned a Nobel Prize in medicine for Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University.

How low will they go?

LCC (short for Low Cost Carrier): This year saw the birth of several budget airlines — Peach Aviation, Air Asia Japan and Jet Star Japan – which promise to upset the reign of JAL and ANA and change the nature of domestic travel in Japan.

Ishin (restoration, 維新): A nod to controversial, ambitious Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and his political party Ishin no Kai — later broadened to the national Nippon Ishin no Kai – both of which dominated news headlines this year.

Shūkatsu (end activities, 終活) A play on the word for “job-hunting” (also pronounced shūkatsu, but spelled with different characters) that became popular with Boomers making preparations for “the end.”

Daisan kyoku (third power, 第3極): Another political entry, referring to the potential for a third party – possibly the tenuous collaboration of Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara – to shake things up.

Bakudan teikiatsu (爆弾低気圧 literally “low pressure bomb”): A rapid drop in atmospheric pressure that precipitates a sudden and intense storm, like typhoon Guchol, which caused dramatic flooding, injuries, and rail line closures in June.

Chikai uchi ni (In the near future, 近いうちに): In August Prime Minister Noda promised to declare parliamentary elections “in the near future.” Elections will finally take place later this month.

Tebura de karaseru wake ni ha ikenai (We can’t let him go home empty-handed, 手ぶらで帰らせるわけにはいかない): Said by Olympic swimmer Takeshi Matsuda after Japan took silver in the medley relay about his teammate Kosuke Kitajima, who failed to win any medals in the individual events. Even though Kitajima has four golds from previous Olympics.

Tokyo Solamachi beats out the big Skytree

Tokyo Solamachi (東京ソラマチ Tokyo Skytown): We’re not sure why this – the shopping center under Tokyo Skytree – beat out the tower itself.

To be honest, the results were a bit disappointing – and not just because a few of the trends we’ve covered over the past year failed to make the final cut (like shio kōji, Tanita Shokudō and Sagawa danshi).

Seeing as this was a year of ongoing protests and politicians making bold statements in favor, or against, taking all nuclear plants offline, surely genpatsu zero (no nukes) should have made the top 10.

None of the web-related words – sōkatsu (social media job-hunting), netōyo (internet nationalists), or ii ne! (the Japanese version of Facebook’s “like”) –  made the final list either.

We were also rooting for bimajo, “beautiful witches” who seem to defy aging.

This year was, oddly, not without scandal. The word namapo was struck from the list at the last minute, for fear that it promoted discrimination against the poor.

Namapo is a contraction of seikatsu hogo – Japanese for “welfare” (the first character can also be read as “nama”). The word spread on Internet forums, becoming part of the web’s colloquial language. Welfare recipients have been increasing in Japan, to the tune of 5,499 a month, and a successful (read: wealthy) comedian, Junichi Komoto, was  slammed by the media earlier this year when it was revealed that his mother was living off of welfare (rather than her son).

Today’s J-Blip: Safecast iOS app

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Screenshots of Safecast’s new iPhone application, showing the area around Fukushima Dai-ichi with different filters

In Japan, cute bouncy mascots are often relied on to raise awareness about campaigns or officious entities. We have our doubts, however, about whether the new mission of Kibitan — to steer kids clear of potential hotspots in Fukushima — will have much of an effect. Call us cold-hearted, but when it comes to radiation, we prefer data — reliable, independently gathered data.

For bringing peace of mind to residents of post-3.11 Japan, or travelers thinking about coming here, nothing has come closer than Safecast. We reported on Safecast Japan shortly after last year’s disaster, when the team of volunteers with Geiger counters was building up their operations at Tokyo HackerSpace.

Comprised of radiation experts, industrious hackers and citizen data-collectors, Safecast is still tirelessly cataloging radiation readings and transforming the raw data into user-friendly maps. They’ve come a long way: From an initial Kickstarter campaign, the group is now funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

Safecast recently launched an iOS application. Its most attractive feature is the “virtual Geiger counter,” which shows you their collected radiation readings, plus readings from the U.S. Department of Energy, for your current location. It’s strangely addictive. There is also a bunch of filters to play around with, which allow you to look specifically for, say, Cesium 137. Best of all, it’s free.

Apparently you can also hook up your own Geiger counter to the app and send readings back into the Safecast system.

Kibitan, we suggest that you download this one now.

Safecast and U.S. Department of Energy readings for the greater Tokyo area as seen on the Safecast iPhone app.

Tokyo Designers Week 2012

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

It’s that Tokyo Designers Week time of year again. The main event sees the usual collage of temporary structures (shipping containers, a huge dome tent, etc.) on the lawn at Meiji-jingu Gaien. The theme – which to be honest doesn’t really sound like a theme at all – is Hello Design! Interpret that as you like.

New this year is a section on architecture, with a collection of models, both experimental and ones that are or will be real structures. There’s also an art fair run by Gallery Tagboat and a whole row of digital content exhibitions. All of which means that there is actually less of the usual stuff – like chairs and lights. Hello Design?

There is more product design action over at Design Tide, being held at Tokyo Midtown, where the nendo Bottleware collection we featured earlier this week is on display. There’s also a whole gaggle of exhibits and installations at shops and galleries around Tokyo (though mostly around Aoyama) under the banner Tide Extension. So yes, there is plenty to see!

All together, it’s mostly Japanese designers, both established and just out of school, but there are quite a few other nationalities represented, too. Taiwan, Singapore, Norway and Israel, for example, all have booths this year. Several Korean universities occupied containers along with their Japanese counterparts in the student section.

Tokyo Designers Week runs until Nov. 5 (and Design Tide until the 4th). There will also be a mega PechaKucha night at the main event on Oct. 31.

Or just stay in and check out our gallery. (Photos by Rebecca Milner. Click on the thumbnails to read more about each photo.)

Today’s J-Blip: Red Bull Curates Canvas Cooler Project

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Artist and fashion designer Akiyoshi Mishima at work on the Red Bull Curate Canvas Cooler project. (Photo by Hiro Ikematsu)

After visiting New York, London and Milan, the Red Bull Curates Canvas Cooler Project has landed in Tokyo. The project invited 21 local artists to take a Red Bull cooler as their canvas. We scored pictures of some of the artists at work in their studios and at play during the opening party at SuperDeluxe. See the finished results for yourself at the Red Bull Japan HQ in Shibuya. The exhibition starts today and runs through Nov. 7. (Click on the thumbnails to read more about each photo.)

Bagel head trend is a big distortion

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

La Carmina with two hosts from Fuel TV, who featured – and received – bagel heads on camera. (photo courtesy of La Carmina)

It would appear that the Western media have, yet again, conjured up a “Big in Japan” trend.

If  “bagel head” means nothing to you, here’s a recap: “Taboo,” a show on National Geographic, ran a segment earlier this week on a kind of extreme body modification that has been happening in Japan’s underground for years. It involves injecting saline into the forehead and then sometimes putting a depression into the bulge in a way that comes out looking like a bagel or a doughnut.

Predictably, U.S. media outlets such as the Huffington Post, CNN and Mashable, and the U.K.’s The Sun and Daily Mail quickly turned out attention-grabbing stories that insinuated that this was the latest Japanese trend. “Japan’s hot new beauty trend?” asks the HuffPo headline, for example.

People outside of Japan seem to be taking the “news” at face value. A tweet from @OMGFact about the “Japanese trend” has been retweeted hundreds of times.

Most observers in Japan, however, know better. @SublightMonster tweeted “Bagel heads: hot new trend, or yet another lazy journalist turning in yet another ‘wacky Japan’ piece?” @Mulboyne, a British Twitter user based in Tokyo, wrote that he was surprised to run into some bulging foreheads at an underground party in 2009. He told us the hardcore body-modification fans there simply called it “seerin durippu” — saline drip. “One reaction was ‘Kimochi warui!‘ (gross!). It looked a bit unsafe,” he said. “There was a lot of amusement, too, of course.”

To set the record straight, we spoke with La Carmina, a well-known subculture blogger and TV host. Her team, La Carmina and the Pirates, actually did the legwork for National Geographic. They hooked the producers up with Kerropy Maeda, the man who brought this type of saline injection to Japan in 2007 after seeing it in Canada. La Carmina and her crew even supplied the show with its models. (To learn more about Maeda and the Tokyo scene, read this excellent interview in Vice  published last year.)

Continue reading about bagel heads →

Bicqlo – Bic Camera meets Uniqlo – is here!

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Bicqlo

JR Shinjuku Station on opening day for Bicqlo. (Rebecca Milner photos)

Bicqlo—the much-hyped Bic Camera and Uniqlo mash-up store—opened in Shinjuku today. And for those who weren’t aware yet of its impending existence, the floors of the JR station in Shinjuku were papered with announcements. Plenty did seem to know, as there were plenty of people inside (and plenty of press leading up to the opening). It wasn’t H&M-opening crowded (no lines to get in after the initial early birds got inside), but there was still a healthy line for the dressing room and enough pushing and shoving to make one question Japan’s prevailing image as a polite and orderly place.

So what exactly is Bicqlo? Sadly, not much more than an ordinary Bic Camera with a Uniqlo sandwiched in the middle. Fans of both brands might be tickled to hear the familiar Bic Camera theme song give a nod to Uniqlo, or see Uniqlo staff wearing Bic Camera-style happi coats. The merchandise, however, save for a few in-store-only Uniqlo items, is essentially the same.

It is all also the same color. As Uniqlo mannequins wearing the brand’s new fall line-up and accessorized with Bic Camera goods (cameras and electric kettles, for example) demonstrate, everyone seems to be working from the same color forecasting charts. Good news for those who want to match their jeggings with their appliances.

However, we’re wondering what Uniqlo is doing matching its clothes with suggestions of housework. The brand has worked so hard over the last few years to give itself a more fashionable image, first with the now-closed UT store in Harajuku and then through its designer capsule collections (with designers like Jun Takahashi no less) and, most recently, by sharing real estate with the decidedly upmarket Dover Street Market in Ginza. Paired with a vacuum, even if it is a sexy Dyson, that down vest just doesn’t look anything but functional — but perhaps that’s back where we’re at, economy-wise.

Indeed the bargain-basement prices that both stores are offering throughout the opening weekend (Sept. 27-30) seem to be the real attraction here. Those who spend ¥7,000 or more can also try their luck at winning limited edition collaboration goods from a gashapon-style capsule game. And, for the time being, you can exchange ¥1,500 worth of Bic Camera points for a ¥1,000 “Bicqlo Coupon,” which can be used at the Uniqlo here. (Unfortunately, it’s a one-way trade: Uniqlo purchases do not earn you points at Bic Camera.)

We’ve been seeing heaps of name-brand collaborations in Japan recently, like the Mos Burger meets Mister Donut shop Mosdo (which also plays on the Japanese fondness for squashing two words together to make a catchy new one). We also like the crossover advertising campaign that pairs Softbank’s popular and endearing “Shirato family” with the iconic Suntory Boss character, played by Tommy Lee Jones; like the individual campaigns, this mash-up is just plain clever.

Bicqlo wins on convenience: It really is useful to be able to pick up socks and printer cartridges in the same place. But as far as innovation, or even novelty, is concerned, isn’t the concept — cheap clothes and electronics in one store — essentially that of any big-box store, the likes of which are littered all over the (gasp!) suburbs?

Today’s J-blip: Seiyu social TV commercial

Monday, August 27th, 2012

seiyu

The diver had a matchmaking party in a sumo ring?

The latest commercial from supermarket chain Seiyu has customers calling the shots. The marketing department supplied only the vaguest scenario, “something falls.” The rest of the who, what, where and when of  the “Seiyu Social CM” were put to an online poll. Participants choose the person and the location from a multiple choice list that brings to mind a Japan-specific version of who-dunnit board game Clue.

An Yahoo News article tried out some of the possible combinations from the choices given, including: “A female shell diver is at a ramen shop having an argument when her zipper falls.” Voters, however, were far more earnest in the message they sent the company. “Supermarket” got the most votes for the “where” and “prices” was one of the top choices for what they wanted to see fall.

With voting now over, the crowd-sourced commercial is set to air Sept. 15. (Spoiler alert: The winning scenario sees a psychic at the supermarket engaging in a suspicious transaction, when a mysterious lever falls.)

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