Author Archive

Ippuku: Tokyo’s new pay-as-you-go smoking space

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

An Ippuku pay smoking space in Tokyo's Ochanomizu

An Ippuku pay smoking space in Ochanomizu. (Rebecca Milner photos)

Tokyo has taken the opposite tack from many Western cities when it comes to curbing tobacco use in public space: smoking is banned on the streets but not inside bars and restaurants. Well, almost banned — special smoking areas, usually in front of train stations, corral smokers into tight quarters around a few communal ashtrays (and inside a haze of smoke). These smoking zones are so unpleasant, they’ve been nicknamed “gas chambers.”

Hikarie smoking space

Hikarie’s clubby smoking space.

Recently, however, we’ve seen a smattering of more attractive smoking spaces — and not just ones created by tobacco companies. The new Hikarie building in Shibuya has what could be called a deluxe smoking lounge. There are benches to sit on, outlets to charge your phone, and, in the smoking space on the 11th floor, moody lighting. Most impressive however is the degree of ventilation — the air isn’t deplorably smoky.

All of this conspires to position smoking not as a fact-of-life or a dirty habit, but rather as a quality of life issue — smoking should ultimately be a pleasant experience. It’s the same logic that results in Japan having some of the nicest public restrooms in the world, with heated toilet seats and rows of mirrors (complete with hooks for hanging handbags and a ledge for holding make-up pouches and hairbrushes).

Starting this summer, a new venture is betting that, where such deluxe quarters do not yet exist for free, smokers would be willing to pay a small premium for that pleasant experience. Ippuku, which means “a puff,” is a pay-as-you-go smoking area. It features much of the same amenities as the space in Hikarie: padded rails to sit on, tables to prop up a drink, outlets for phone charging, and continuously circulating air.

Continue reading about smoking lounges for paying customers →

Take the kids back in time this summer

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Lunch at Ubusuna House, part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. (Rebecca Milner photo)

Last week, NHK ran a story on a “Showa Lifestyle” exhibition at a shopping center in Mito, a city two hours northeast of Tokyo. The exhibit wasn’t aimed at baby-boomers — Showa refers to the historical period from 1926-1989 — but rather their children and grandchildren.

The Mito City Museum, which put on the event, set up a mock living room circa the 1960s. Here kids could experience sitting at a low table on floor cushions, turning the dials on a black-and-white TV, many of them likely for the first time. They could also see what it was like to use an old rotary phone, a foot-pedal sewing machine and even a few pairs of take-uma, bamboo stilts, a popular amusement from an era of few luxuries.

For kids weaned on mobile phones, there may be no greater novelty than the past. They can also get an inkling of how different their world is from that of previous generations.

While the Mito event has already ended, there are plenty of other places where the family can get a taste of Showa life. At this summer’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, in rural Niigata prefecture, visitors can eat and sleep inside country homes and schoolhouses dating from the early to mid-20th century.

Many such structures outside of cities around Japan have lost their original usefulness on account of the country’s aging population and lack of attractive job opportunities there for young people. Countless such sites have been lost forever; however, there is a growing trend to label them heritage buildings and turn them into museums or hands-on learning centers.

Continue reading about the Showa nostalgia kick →

Today’s J-blip: rrrrrrrroll

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

roll lightpost

Have you seen these  hypnotic, strangely beautiful GIF images yet? At a rate of roughly two a week, they’ve been appearing on a Tumblr blog called rrrrrrrroll that is dedicated to the project and run by a group of friends.


Sometimes it’s a young woman spinning on an axis, at the unhurried pace of a ceiling fan set on low.  Other times it’s an object — an umbrella, or an electric rice cooker, for example — set in motion. A simple concept, yet undeniably captivating.


According to the group’s Facebook page, the blog has attracted more than 10,000 followers. Not too shabby for a group that only started uploading photos in April.

And a hat-tip to Tofugu for the find . . . though it was Huffington Post  that first shined the big light on the rrrrrrrrollers.

Today’s J-blip: Japanese are traveling where?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Angkor Wat, the No. 1 travel destination for Japanese, according to a recent poll

Trip Advisor polled its Japanese users on their favorite overseas holiday destinations — and the results are not what you might expect. Sure, perennial favorites like Lanikai Beach, Hawaii (#3) and Florida’s Walt Disney World (#4) make the top five, but they rank below more exotic locals like Angkor Wat (#1) and Machu Picchu (#2). And while western Europe gets plenty of nods, so does eastern Europe. Destinations in Asia and the Middle East, along with some oddly specific locales — like Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory and Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium — all make the top 50.

Are Japanese tourists getting more adventurous? Taking advantage of the strong yen? Are the survey results naturally skewed? What do you think?

Photo by cornstaruk/Flickr

Edo-era amazake is back to beat the summer heat

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Bottles of amazake for sale at Matsuya department store in Ginza, Tokyo. (Photo by Rebecca Milner)

The annual competition for the summer’s hit drink is as fierce as usual, and all the major manufacturers have their contenders. Will it be Asahi’s new Red Eye in a can? Or Pepsi’s latest oddity, the shocking-pink Salty Watermelon soda?

According to the morning TV show “Non Stop!,” the winner may just be a dark horse: amazake.

Though it literally means “sweet sake,” this fermented rice drink is actually alcohol free and has been around for centuries. In the Edo Period, it was commonly drunk to ward off the dreaded natsu-bate (summer heat fatigue). Apparently the combination of vitamin B and glucose provides an immediate jolt of energy. The rich ate eel; the rest drank amazake.

At some point  in history, that tradition fell out of favor. These days, amazake generally only shows up at traditional festivals, namely during New Years, or at cafes attached to Buddhist temples. Now, however, a savvy Niigata producer is looking to give amazake a little more everyday cachet.

In February, Furumachi Kōji Seijōjo opened a specialty shop in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Jiyugaoka. Here you can get hot and cold amazake drinks spiked with matcha and shiso (perilla leaf) or health tonics that mix amazake with fruit-flavored vinegar. Boosted by plenty of media attention, they’ve since opened a second branch in the basement food court of Ginza’s Matsuya department store.

Continue reading about amazake →

Today’s J-blip: Mannan Rebā replaces beef liver sashimi

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

fake liver

Mannan Rebā, “liver” made from konnyaku, stands in for the real thing. Photo courtesy of Haisky

As of July 1, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare banned Japan’s restaurants from serving rebā-sashi — beef liver sashimi — a raw dish popular at yakiniku restaurants. It was only a matter of time, of course, before someone began promoting a substitute. After all, Japan is the country that brought the world kanikama — fake crabmeat.

Enter Mannan Rebā. It’s made from sheets of konnyaku (arrowroot jelly), a traditional gelatinous foodstuff commonly found in oden. Haisky, the Kagawa Prefecture konnyaku manufacturer behind the product, introduced the imitation liver last fall — before the ban was announced but after the deadly food poisonings that prompted it.

It seems to be hitting the spot. The company has so far sold over 300,000 packs of Mannan Rebā — over half of them since the ban kicked in.


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