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AKB48 spends summer vacation at USJ

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan is getting a new attraction this summer. It’s not a new roller coaster — instead it’s the members of everyone’s favorite J-pop cluster, AKB48.

During a special show on June 2 at USJ, the band announced that certain members will be performing not for one day, not for two days, but for over a month straight.

Visitors will be able to see the girls in the flesh from July 21 through Sept. 4, just in time for summer vacation for students. (No word on whether or not middle-age salarymen will be able to take off work to cheer on their favorite members.)

The daily show will feature 16 girls from its gaggle of singers, including Mayu Watanabe and Haruna Kojima, as they form the limited-time only “USJ48.” If that isn’t enough, concerts will also share the stage with members from sister groups from around Japan, including NMB48, HKT48 and NGT48.

Make sure to line up early this summer as groups of fans will surely make the trip from Akihabara to Osaka.

Following the ‘Girls’ to Japan

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Two episodes of the fifth season of HBO’s hit show “Girls” turned its lens to Japan. While the show focuses on four millennials trying to make it in New York, season five takes plucky Shoshanna Shapiro out of the Big Apple and sends her to Tokyo for a new marketing position.

Here, she experiences both real and surreal aspects of life in Japan. At times, her itinerary feels like Buzzfeed clickbait (think “10 crayzee things to do in Tokyo!”), including highlights such as feet-eating fish, cat cafes and S&M bars. In its defense, the show also highlights normal points of life in Japan, including buying onigiri snacks for work, slurping ramen after drinks and chilling at an urban hot spring with friends.

And even Shoshanna, who is essentially kawaii incarnate, can get bogged down by the realities of expat life in Tokyo. She’s not exactly fluent in Japanese, her friends constantly remind her about her foreigner status and she has to deal with cultural differences in the dating scene.

But during her stay in Japan, Shoshanna visits a variety of classic tourist spots and experiences traditional pastimes. Now that season five is finally airing in Japan on Star Channel, we’ve mapped out her time abroad so you can see where the Tokyo adventures took place.

Mitaka house

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Since Shoshanna is the quirkiest character on the show, it’s only natural that she stays in one of the quirkiest condos complexes in Japan, titled “Reversible Destiny Lofts Mitaka in Memory of Helen Keller.

Located in Mitaka, less than an hour from inner Tokyo, Shusaku Arakawa’s famous complex features a brightly colored facade and ball-shaped rooms. The architect has said he designed the building, which was completed in 2005, to keep tenants alert and forestall the inevitable: death.

Shibuya Crossing

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This sight will be familiar to anyone who has been to Tokyo, and even those who haven’t.

Millions of people brave the Shibuya “scramble crossing” every year. Surrounded by giant video billboards evoking scenes out of “Blade Runner,” the crossing is the city’s top selfie spot. Naturally, Shosh, wearing Hello Kitty headphones, navigates the five-way intersection with aplomb.

Taketori-no-Yu Spa

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Shoshanna takes like a fish to water by embracing Japan’s bathing tradition. This “super sento” in the Tokyo suburb of Tama, which has giant baths, massages and dining halls, is not exactly your typical neighborhood bath.

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For Shoshanna’s second visit, she and her former boss Abigail (played by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Aidy Bryant) indulge in “Doctor Fish” foot baths, where little fish actually nibble the dead skin on your feet (for ¥500). Actress Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna) said that “it doesn’t just tickle, it kinda really hurts.”

Moon Romantic

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Shoshanna makes her move on shy work colleague Yoshi at the aptly named Moon Romantic (青山 月見ル君想フ) while her and her friends see the Japanese band Flip.

The venue features a variety of performers throughout the year, ranging from piano players to up-and-coming rock stars. Unlike the more famous and slightly grungier “live houses” in the city, Moon Romantic, located in the up-market Minami Aoyama, is decidedly more clean-cut.

Trump Room

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Shoshanna gets a first-hand taste of S&M at Shibuya’s Trump Room, a nexus for trendy scenesters that boasts dozens of chintzy chandeliers and mirrors.

As the bar has a revolving door of DJs and themed nights, don’t show up looking for latex-clad dominatrixes on any night of the week.

Golden Gai

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After a long day, Shoshanna and her gal pals go out for drinks in a small hole-in-the-wall izakaya in what looks like the Golden Gai area, a sliver of Shinjuku that is jam-packed with tiny bars and has been a magnet for tipplers since the 1960s.

Pro tip: Most places have only a few counter seats each, so don’t bring a large group of friends along for your pub crawl.

Takeshita Dori

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One location that should be obvious to any visitor of Japan is Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori, where Shoshanna takes Abigail on a trek through what she calls “Katy Perry’s vagina.”

The street’s pink-centric fashion shops and creperies attract hordes of young people and tourists.

Pro tip: If you’re allergic to crowds, squeals and pink, steer clear.

Temari no Ouchi Cat Cafe

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After being laid off from her marketing job, Shoshanna does the responsible thing and becomes an assistant manager at Temari no Ouchi Cat Cafe.

Located in Kichijoi, this cat cafe is one of the most elaborate in the city with its Ghibli-like decor. And while other cat cafes simply serve tea or coffee, Temari no Ouchi has full meal sets along with cat-shaped cookies.

Afuri Ramen Ebisu

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If the ramen at Afuri looked delicious, the good news is that you can go ahead and try it yourself.

Not your average fat-laden ramen, the noodles here are on the lighter end of the spectrum. The signature bowl of yuzu shio ramen is not be missed. You can slurp on Afuri’s ramen at seven locations, but we’re impressed that Shoshanna chose the flagship shop in Ebisu.

Nishi Shinjuku

Shoshanna’s final moments in Japan have her walking in the early morning hours through Nishi Shinjuku.

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The street has all of the things you’d expect from a jaunt through Tokyo, except people.

And if you want to peer even further behind the camera, you can view these behind-the-scenes videos the first Japan episode and the second Japan episode of “Girls.”

Bonus: Are you jealous of Shoshanna’s talking alarm clock? Well, you can now buy it on Amazon.

Marketing push for Hokkaido Shinkansen blasts off

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Some of the new items promoting the Hokkaido Shinkansen.

Some of the new items promoting the Hokkaido Shinkansen.

Japan’s famous shinkansen bullet train is known around the world for its speed, efficiency and safety. Currently, people in Tokyo can take a bullet train all the way to Fukuoka on Kyushu island or to Aomori, at the northern tip of Honshu. But now the high-speed train network is taking it to the next level by extending its reach to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, letting consumers go from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in about four hours.

As Japan gets ready for the start of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen on March 26, many companies are launching marketing tie-ups — with some odd results. Here are a few of the campaigns on the fast track.

Tomix train set

New train toys modeled after the Series H5 Hayabusa? No brainer.

Tomix’s set comes with all 10 cars, and the interior can even be lit up. If you’d like to buy it outside of Japan, there are sets being sold on eBay.

Suntory beer

One of the best parts about riding bullet trains in Japan is being able to eat food on public transportation without judgment — huzzah! Ekiben, or train lunch boxes, are a given. Like a beer with that? No problem.

Let the conductor be the designated driver as you can pop a can or three of Suntory’s beer — same taste, new design. If beer is not your thing, Co-op Gurana is repackaging its soda with the Hayabusa train as well.

Lotteria meal

Fast food chain Lotteria is famous for creating food that could kill you, but this time they’re putting it inside a cute Hayabusa box.

A Shinjuku branch is selling meals wrapped up in the Hokkaido Shinkansen train that comes with a rib sandwich, fries and a drink. The meal won’t cost as much as a train ticket though as it’s only ¥1,000 and is available until May 31.

Calbee potato chips

Snack king Calbee is also taking a bite out of the shinkansen commotion with a line of bullet Hokkaido-inspired chips.

Calbee has three new flavors for potato chip fans — onion and salt, seaweed and mentaiko, and garlic and mayonnaise. The company has never shied away from strange new flavors, including its tuna-corn-curry flavor. If you can’t stop eating these addictive chips, you can always keep the bag shut with a Hayabusa stapler.

Acecook Ramen

It may take four hours to get to Hakodate, but it will only take a few minutes to warm up Acecook’s newest ramen.

The two instant noodles come in salt or soy flavors. The packaging also features the official Hokkaido Shinkansen mascot, Dokodemo Yuki-chan (Anywhere Snow-chan).

McDonald’s pie

The only thing faster than the Hokkaido Shinkansen is the food at McDonald’s. The venerable chain is releasing a line of sweets with nods to Hokkaido’s farming and dairy culture.

For a limited time, customers can buy its Hokkaido Milk Pie, a fluffy croissant filled with gooey goodness. It’ll also be packaged in a signature purple color to match the stripes on the Hayabusa train.

Sapporo Snow Festival

And bringing this marketing blitz back to where Hokkaido, this year’s Sapporo Snow Festival was decked out in ads featuring the new shinkansen line. There was even a huge snow sculpture shaped like a Hayabusa train that was lit up at night.

As the Hokkaido Shinkansen will be extended from Shin-Hakodate to Sapporo Station in 2030, the Sapporo Snow Festival — and Hokkaido itself — is bound to get a jump in tourists as more and more people head north.

Nintendo levels up smartphones with wallpapers and cases

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

As gamers anxiously await for the release of Nintendo’s new Miitomo app on March 17, smartphone users can level up their devices now with new wallpapers and cases from the Big N.

Nintendo’s Line account

Last September, Nintendo jumped into the brave new social media world by releasing its Line account. The profile features a sassy green Toad named Kinopio that will chat with you using pre-programmed messages, but that’s not its main selling point.

About twice a month, the Line account will send you free wallpapers for your phone. Usually they are related to recently released games, such as “Fire Emblem” or “The Legend of Zelda,” but they have been sending out calendars as well.

Nintendo's February calendar.

Nintendo’s February calendar.

At the end of every month, Nintendo will send users a new calendar that features Nintendo characters celebrating upcoming holidays. They had Kinopio riding a Rudolph-inspired Yoshi in December and him throwing beans at Boos for Setsubun in February.

“Super Mario Maker” wallpaper

If you’re not happy with Nintendo’s wallpapers, why not create your own using “Super Mario Maker”?

Inspired by Nintendo’s Wii U game, users can open up a special website and build their own “Super Mario” level in the browser. After choosing which graphics style they want (anything from 8-bit to polygons), users can download the screenshot for their computer or phone.

A screenshot of the

A screenshot of the “Super Mario ‘Kabegami’ Maker” website.

All of the instructions are in Japanese, but the intuitive interface makes it clear what to do. Just pick computer or phone, the resolution size, and then start decorating your level with as many Goombas as you want.

Phone covers

Nintendo has been letting third-party companies produce phone cases for a while now, but it’s kicking it up a notch with Kirby covers.

A recent line featuring the big pink puffball has a retro feel as it features him from his 8-bit days as he bounces through clouds and rides stars.

A new phone cover that features an 8-bit Kirby.

A phone cover that features an 8-bit Kirby.

If that’s not cute enough for you, gamers can also buy a variety of Pikachu and Pokémon smartphone cases and IC card holders.

So whether you want to dress up your smartphone on the inside or the outside, Nintendo has you — and your phone — covered.

Pokémon catches nostalgia fever for its 20th anniversary

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

It’s hard to believe, but Pokémaniacs have been trying to catch ’em all for two decades. Nintendo and the Pokémon Company are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Pokémon with a year full of new products, re-releases and huge doses of nostalgia around the world.

Up first is a re-release of the very first Game Boy games (“Red,” “Blue,” “Green” and “Yellow”), which will be available for purchase on “Pokémon Day,” Feb. 27, exactly 20 years since their initial launch. Trainers can download digital copies of the game for their Nintendo 3DS or 2DS, or they can buy a special edition of the Nintendo 2DS.

The anniversary bundle comes with either a copy of

The anniversary bundle comes with either a copy of “Red,” “Green,” “Blue” or “Yellow.”

The anniversary bundle comes with a colored, clear-plastic handheld system, a digital copy of the game, stickers, a town map and a code to download the legendary Pokémon Mew. Those wanting something a little more modern should check out the other games coming to the Wii U and smartphones later this year.

If the original game’s 8-bit music doesn’t hold up, you can always hear an orchestrated version of the Pokémon soundtrack in person with the Pokémon Symphonic Evolutions concert.

The North American show will feature a live orchestra performing many fan favorites from various entries in the series. Currently the website only features a listing for St. Louis of all places, but promises more dates and locations in the future.

And when there is a Pokémon celebration, there must be gratuitous amounts of Pokémon swag. U.S. fans can buy a variety of 20th anniversary apparel, featuring a special logo, along with an updated version of “Pokémon: The First Movie.” There will also be limited edition trading cards, featuring some of the original Pocket Monsters, as well as Kyoto-themed toys to commemorate the newest Pokémon Center in Japan’s ancient capital.

For some gamers, this will definitely pull up memories of watching the cartoon after school and demanding that Mom buy new batteries for the Game Boy. If you’re one of them, feel free to join the nostalgia fest with the #Pokemon20 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. Post your favorite moments and memories from the Pokémon series, whether it’s Red picking his first Pocket Monster or watching your own kids join the Pokémon fandom. Users are also posting artwork and other DIY projects to the hashtag.

So whether you did indeed catch them all or if you were just content with only Pikachu, the 20th anniversary of Pokémon celebration will have something to make you feel like a kid again.

Sugar rush of sweet sushi, chocolate fossils and more as Valentine’s in Japan approaches

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

Japan has an uneven track record when it comes to celebrating Western holidays. While many people have started dressing up for Halloween only recently, the country has wholly embraced Valentine’s Day since the 1950s. Annually, women buy premium chocolate and in bulk, generating half the country’s chocolate business being spent in February.

(Yes, that’s mostly women. Men repay the confectionary favor on White Day a month later.)

While there are mountains of high-end choco tugging at the heart strings, many vendors are trying to stand out with unique packaging and offbeat designs. Here are a few tasty examples.

Sushi chocolate

If you want to give your partner a gift with a Japanese twist, why not go fishing for some sushi-shaped candy?

Tobu's chocolate sushi.

Tobu’s chocolate sushi.

Instead of heading to Tsukiji’s fish market, go west to Ikebukuro’s Tobu Department Store where you can buy chocolate that looks like egg, shrimp and sea urchin sushi. The set, which costs ¥2,592, includes a dollop of mousse that represent the ginger gari.

Chocolate is a girl’s best friend

Takashimaya Osaka Store has morphed two favorite gift options: chocolate and diamonds.

Takashimaya's jeweled cake.

Takashimaya’s jeweled cake.

The department store’s new cake glitters as it’s decorated with diamonds in addition to frosting. You better be in love because the cake, encrusted with 125 diamonds, will set you back more than ¥14 million.

‘Poisoned’ apples

Kuromajutsu has a series of “poisoned” apples — but not any old  “Snow White” types of fruits. The company claims it has injected “magic” into these apples using a Buddhist prayer that will, supposedly, make your victim — um, that is future spouse — fall in love with you instantly.

Kuromajutsu's magically

A screenshot of Kuromajutsu’s magically “poisoned” apple.

Kuromajutsu packages the ominous apple in a black box complete with the company’s black cat logo. True love can be yours for just a bite — and ¥10,000.

Canned meat

Does your man lack a sweet tooth? Meiji has a savory solution by offering up the perfect canned meat for this Valentine’s Day.

Meiji's canned meat.

Meiji’s canned meat.

The company’s web page recommends which canned meat would go well with the men in your life. For example, your hard-working co-worker who likes sake may prefer corn beef, while your red wine-drinking boss might like grilled chicken. We can’t guarantee your Valentine will enjoy this gift, but it is sure to be memorable.

Monster cookies

At the event Cookieboy event, people can ice monster-shaped cookies designed by textile artist Takehiro Natsuyama to create adorable and delicious treats.

Cookieboy's creatively designed treats.

Cookieboy’s creatively designed treats.

Natsuyama wants guests to use his beastly cookies as a canvas and show them how to turn treats into works of art using only frosting and other toppings. Instead of keeping it a secret, you can make your Valentine’s gift with your boyfriend this year at the Cookieboy workshop

Jurassic Fossil Chocolat

Instead of searching for the perfect gift, you can make your boyfriend dig it up himself with an archaeological treat. Welcome to Jurassic chocolate.

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Jurassic Fossil Chocolat by Maquis.

Jurassic Fossil Chocolat by Maquis is a tasty set where people have to unearth the chocolate fossil hidden behind a layer of . . . more chocolate. The set even comes with a tiny hammer and brush to complete the prehistoric experience. Some of the buried dinosaurs include a T-rex, stegosaurus and brachiosaurus.

Yahoo! Japan’s Valentine’s Boy Field Guide

If none of these options sound appetizing and you’re still unsure as to what kind of sweets to give your sweetie, Yahoo! Japan has a new site where you can (virtually) ask 25 different boys what their dream date and chocolate is.

Yahoo! Japan’s Valentine’s Boy Field Guide.

Yahoo! Japan’s Valentine’s Boy Field Guide.

After you input your lover’s face type (dog, monkey, horse) and personality (herbivore, geeky, manly man), you can ask all of your burning Valentine’s questions. It’s a little unnerving watching this uncanny valley version of your boyfriend reveal his private thoughts, but his reaction is actually based on a scientific survey.

As you can see, Valentine’s Day in Japan isn’t just about chocolates and flowers. It’s a big business, and companies will continue to reinterpret the day in new and sometimes terrifying ways.

100 years of Japanese beauty in one minute

Friday, January 15th, 2016

The production company Cut has made a name for itself by creating videos that look back at the history of beauty in various countries, including China, Ethiopia, Brazil and Germany. The videos show the different hairstyles, fashion and makeup that each decade was known for, with one model trying on all of the looks.

Now Cut has focused its lens on Japan by showing the dramatic changes Japanese women have gone through in the past century —  ranging from the classic white makeup and big hair from 1910 to modern day kawaii style — all in 103 seconds

To show how accurate their looks are, Cut posted their throwback inspirations on Pinterest and explained them in a behind-the-scenes video.

1910

1910.

At the end of the Meiji Period, nihongami (traditional bundled hairstyle) was still popular but was mixed with the pompadour look that many women were wearing at the time in Europe. In terms of makeup, ochoboguchi (small lip) style was preferred as women only painted inside their natural lip line.

1920

1920.

Magazines started dictating fashion in the ’20s as wavy, permed hair became the standard look. Many women chose a mimikakushi (hidden ear) haircut with a stylish clip.

1930

1930.

In the 1930s, Japanese women embraced the international “modern girl” look, including bob haircuts and fitted hats. The hair became so synonymous with the “modern girl” lifestyle that the cut is referred to as moga (a portmanteau of modan gaaru, or modern girl).

1940

1940.

During WWII, Japanese citizens were expected to rebuke Western influences and go back to traditional Japanese ways, including fashion. Many women wore conservative jugo hair tied back into a bun.

1950

1950.

In postwar Japan, people looked to Hollywood and entertainment for inspiration, including many American actresses. One of the looks of the day is named the Machiko maki, named after the main character from the radio drama “Kimi no Na Ha.” Think of it as the Rachel of the 1950s.

1960

1960.

The ’60s was all about big eyes and big accessories. Cut was inspired by Chiyo Okumura, a famous pop singer at the time whose look influenced many.

1970

1970.

Sayoko Yamaguchi was one of the biggest stars, not just in Japan, but in the world during the 1970s. The supermodel was found in many magazines where she showed off her unique style and iconic bangs.

1980

1980.

During the economic boom of the 1980s, many girls wanted to look as cute and innocent as Seiko Matsuda, a hugely popular singer and one of Japan’s ultimate idols. Seiko-chan’s feathered hair was so ingrained into mainstream culture that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

1990

1990.

Longer, curly hair became more popular as women in the 1990s were less interested in looking simple and cute.

1990.

On the other end of the ’90s spectrum, ganguro style swept through the streets of Tokyo. Ignoring all past trends and social standards, ganguro embraced tan skin, defining makeup, and outrageous nails and accessories. If you want to witness the look for yourself, you can visit the Ganguro Cafe in Shibuya.

2000

2000.

During the recession, women tamed things down and chose a more girl-next-door approach. Cut chose a look worn by popular model Yuri Ebihara. Again, her wavy hair became so popular that people went to salons asking for the Ebi-chan maki.

2000.

While some women started dressing more simply, other women decided to go with an over-the-top agejo appearance. Agejo refers to the women who dressed like the models in Koakuma Ageha magazine, which at one point was selling 300,00 copies a month. The style brings together big hair and pale makeup that borders the line between fashionable and sultry.

2010

2010.

Current women are dressing even more effortlessly than before. Iyashikei (therapeutic) style is trending with girls who want to come off as loving and motherly by wearing yurufuwa perms and more natural makeup.

2010.

While mainstream women are going back to basics, decora girls are picking up the slack — along with anything else they can find. The Harajuku subculture likes to put on as many colorful clips, rings and stickers as their face can handle to balance out the drab days at school and in the office.

You can see more videos from Cut on their YouTube page.

Studio Ghibli on a roll with licenses for new toys

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

If you’re still wound up about Studio Ghibli more-or-less leaving the animation industry, there are some new toys that may help ease the pain.

Toy company Nibariki has a new “pullback collection” of figurines that will race forward when wound up. Certain items are downright adorable while others are just creepy crawlers.

On the cute side, Nibariki has three “My Neighbor Totoro” vehicles, including the blue vehicle that Mei and Satsuki cling to during moving day, and the city bus their father takes to work. (Sorry, no Catbus though.) There is also a wooden buggy made from a tree that’s driven by a Totoro.

The new toys based on Studio Ghibli's movies are both darling and disgusting.

The new toys based on Studio Ghibli’s movies are both darling and disgusting.

On the gross side, there are the huge worm monsters from “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” that roll with such realistic movements that it may bug you out. And just like in the movie, the red-eyed beasts will dart forward while blue-eyed ones go at a much slower speed.

All items are available on Ensky Shop’s website and cost ¥2,300, making the perfect stocking stuffer this season for your anime-loving friends.

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