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Hitting the mark at the Miraikan’s ninja exhibition

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

By Jon Ginsburg

Thanks in large part to some teenage turtles and video game culture, ninja are no long hidden in the shadows and known worldwide. The nimble masters of stealth and subterfuge are also experiencing a bit of a comeback in their homeland.

The ninja came into the spotlight at the Group of Seven summit, which was held in Mie Prefecture in May. Iga, a city in Mie that also happens to be “the hometown of ninja,” pounced on the promotional opportunity and had the troupe Iga-Ninja Group Ashura showcase ninja skills and explain their tools and techniques for the summit’s visitors.

Also in 2016, Aichi Prefecture advertised that it would be hiring ninja to promote tourism, as well as its historic Nagoya Castle. No doubt inspired by the upcoming tourism bonanza, culminating with the 2020 Olympics, this campaign will feature ninja performing acrobatic stunts, using their signature shuriken throwing stars and, of course, posing for pictures with tourists.

For the next three months, Tokyo residents and tourists alike can get the full ninja experience at Odaiba’s Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. On July 2, their latest special exhibition — “The Ninja: Who Were They?” — opened to the public.

Three uniquely constructed fire arrows sit in one of the exhibition’s multiple a display cases. Despite its misleading name, fire arrows were actually the world’s first rockets.

Three uniquely constructed fire arrows sit in one of the exhibition’s multiple a display cases. Despite its misleading name, fire arrows were actually the world’s first rockets. (Jon Ginsburg)

On the media preview day, I had a chance to experience it firsthand. Before venturing into the show’s interactive areas, I perused the historical displays and ninja-related artifacts near the entrance. These ranged from different types of shuriken (there are a variety of kinds, believe it or not) to other weapons and tools of the trade, including grapples, iron claws and fire arrows, to name just a few.

The exhibition also contains installations that provide insight into the ninja ways of life and explain survival strategies, such as methods of concealment and secret codes.

What sets this exhibition apart is its interactive component. Visitors — be they children or adults — can test their skills to determine whether or not they have what it takes to be a ninja.

The tiptoe challenge shows no mercy! Hearts sink as the wailing of sirens stationed on either side of the wooden floor force challengers to return to the starting line.

The tiptoe challenge shows no mercy! Hearts sink as the wailing of sirens stationed on either side of the wooden floor force challengers to return to the starting line. (Jon Ginsburg)

The first exercise I tried consisted of jumping over boxes representing sunflowers. Naturally, no self-respecting ninja would leave bent flowers in his wake. While it sounds easy, it’s not merely a matter of jumping high. You have to use your head.

My confidence soared after this first task. I thought I was well on my way to becoming a ninja . . . until I reached the dreaded tiptoe challenge. Participants must silently tiptoe across a wooden floor without triggering sensors that set off alarms. This challenge was easily the most frustrating. My advice to future challengers is to stay on your toes, and don’t let your heels hit the floor.

The shuriken target practice proved to be a fan-favorite among the exhibition’s younger visitors. Kids perfected their throwing accuracy by tossing countless ninja stars at the wall’s illuminated bullseyes.

The shuriken target practice proved to be a fan-favorite among the exhibition’s younger visitors. Kids perfected their throwing accuracy by tossing countless ninja stars at the wall’s illuminated bullseyes. (Jon Ginsburg)

I took another beating at the shuriken target wall. Since throwing accuracy is one of my athletic strengths, I assumed that I would excel at this challenge. Unfortunately, my overconfidence proved to be my downfall. Maybe it was my one-out-of-five hit rate, or maybe it was seeing children half my size hitting the targets more often, but I definitely came up small during this task.

If, as I did, you discover that you lack the right stuff to become a ninja, there are two photo opportunities that might make you feel better. You can attach your head to an animated figure’s body, via the old face-in-photo-wall trick, or visit a light display that shows your digital ninja silhouette. Strike a pose, and the silhouette may even grow or multiply.

“The Ninja: Who Were They?” is an ideal exhibition for those seeking a more interactive museum experience. The history of these Japanese espionage experts is fascinating, but what’s not to love about a show that tests your mad ninja skills?

See City Guide article on “The Ninja: Who Were They?” for details.

G-strings on the menu at Amrita’s naked dining pop-up

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Following in the shoeless footsteps of restaurants in London and Melbourne, the pop-up Amrita has a simple premise: diners must be naked before they are seated. Well, almost naked. Unlike other such pop-ups, guests in Tokyo will be provided with “paper underwear.” Whether this fig leaf is to satisfy patrons’ modesty or satisfy local hygiene laws is yet to be seen.

It’s also worth mentioning that Amrita isn’t the first restaurant made for the senses. Dark Dinner events involved blindfolded patrons trying food and having no idea what they are eating. But where Dark Dinner makes you dine blind, Amrita is truly an eyeful.

Amrita's website claims that it's importing

Amrita’s website claims that it’s importing “top class” male dancers for its pop-up event.

There are a couple of other rules as well. No phones or cameras, no tattoos (oh, Japan), and people can’t be “15 kg overweight.” Exactly what is the tipping point on the scale though is unclear. So yes, Amrita wants to celebrate the human body — as long as the body looks in shape. Oh, and nobody over 60 years old, please.

The restaurant’s website says that Amrita wants guests to have an au naturel experience where they can focus on the food, which happens to be organic, and nothing else — except maybe the waiters. According the event’s website, the pop-up is bringing in “top class” male dancers, dressed only in G-strings, who will be serving up meals and muscles.

If naked dining doesn’t seem intimidating, the prices may shock you. There are several different meals ranging from ¥12,000-80,000. Sadly for those emperors with no clothes, the ¥80K seats are all sold out during its three-day run from July 29-31. No details on what the top-drawer plans entail, however.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, Amrita’s website breaks down the process in eight simple steps, liberally translated here:

1. Show up, your heart pounding
2. ID check (making sure you are over 18 but under 60)
3. Strip — but don’t forget the paper undies
4. Hand over all cameras and cell phones
5. Strut to your table
6. Eat, or that is try to eat
7. Change back into your clothes
8. Go back into the sad, clothed world

Rush of new gravity wave products set to flood the market

Friday, April 1st, 2016

With the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves in February, and the interest by Japanese physicists in neutrinos, consumers have become increasingly concerned over the possible adverse effects of these phenomena on their health.

Feeling a bit heavy? GW Nuke might be the ticket.

Feeling a bit heavy? GW Nuke might be the ticket.

In case you’re out of the loop, neutrinos are those elusive massless chargeless subatomic particles whose presence is only made apparent through the use of sophisticated detection devices.

Japan’s food and beverage manufacturers have been quick to seek new marketing opportunities. On March 28, Aomori-based Nandemo Beverage Co., Ltd. released its new anti-GW drink, “G-W Nuke” (pronounced “NOO-kay”).

“Our customers are aware that gravitational waves (GW) can affect their body weight,” Hiroshi Daido, marketing manager at Nandemo, pointed out. “These gravitational irregularities can affect the body’s metabolism. So we developed our anti-GW drink to neutralize the waves’ effects.”

Packaged in a specially designed container composed of a composite material — the details of which are a corporate secret — a 240 ml bottle of “GW Nuke” will retail for ¥980.

“Those concerned that gravitational waves may be affecting their weight should consume at least three bottles daily,” Daido recommends.

To Makkana Usoda, head of Nandemo’s R&D laboratory, the existence of gravitational waves wasn’t exactly news.

“It seems our researchers actually detected them in the early 1930s,” he said. “In fact, we discovered their lab notes stuffed in the back of a filing cabinet just one day after NASA announced their results.

Apparently the company couldn’t find any practical applications for them at that time. But now of course we’re in a far better position to exploit their commercial possibilities.”

For those disturbed by reports of neutrinos and “dark matter,” Muriyari Productions of Gifu, the same prefecture where Japan’s neutrino detection experiment has been ongoing, has succeeded in producing a “Light Shield.” While similar in appearance to a conventional umbrella, Muriyari has applied a special surface coating that it claims will protects users from the harmful effects of neutrinos while also repelling dark matter. The shield is offered in small, medium and large sizes and in a variety of patterns, with prices starting at ¥45,000 (consumption tax extra).

As science achieves a better understanding of the effects of gravitational waves and neutrinos on humans, the Japanese government is pinning hopes on a new export boom spurred by breakthroughs in this field.

A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked, “This may very well mark the turning point for Japan to emerge from its prolonged recession, vindicating the principles of ‘Abenomics’ and forming the ‘fourth arrow’ in the revitalization of the economy.”

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.

Get a taste of spring with cherry blossom-inspired goods

Saturday, March 12th, 2016

sakuracombo2All of Japan will soon be in the pink as the country celebrates the sacred sakura with picnics and drinking sessions underneath the cherry trees

Part of the hanami tradition includes eating cherry blossom-flavored snacks, including classics such as sakura mochi. Now the number of sakura-themed goods are blossoming as more and more major corporations jump on board with their own snacks and items. Here’s a taste of some of the items on shelves now.


This season Starbucks isn’t roasting just coffee beans but cherry petals with its sakura chiffon cake. You can also wash down the sugary treat with even more sugar — either strawberry sakura lattes or strawberry sakura frappuccinos.

If you want to experience spring all year round, you can also pick up Starbucks’ cherry blossom-themed mugs and tumblers. Get a move on; these sell out fast.

Kimura Drink

Now that you have your sakura mug, why not fill it up with Kimura Drink’s sakura cola? This fizzy concoction contains the extract of real sakura leaves for an authentic taste of spring.

Worth noting that Kimura Drink has previously launched sodas with curry, tomato and wasabi flavors so they clearly know what they’re doing.

Suntory Chu-hi

If you want something with more of a kick, Suntory has got you covered with their sakura flavored chu-hi (a canned alcoholic drink consisting of shochu and fruit juice.)

Suntory’s chu-hi drink is made with real Sato Nishiki cherries and sakura liqueur. At 4 percent alcohol, it’s about half as strong as most shochu drinks, giving it a light, sweet and fragrant taste.

Sanktgallen beer

If sake or chu-hi is a little strong for your taste, you can always go with the more refined option of this sakura-mochi beer. This beer uses much less hops than your average beer and balances it out with flavors inspired by sakura-mochi — a traditional spring treat consisting of rice cake and bean paste wrapped in a cherry leaf.

This delicious beer is produced by Sanktgallen, a microbrewery based in Kanagawa Prefecture, who insists on using only the famous Takato cherry blossoms from Nagano Prefecture in its sakura beer brewing process.


In the past McDonald’s has released a sakura burger, but this year they are keeping it simple.

Available now are the sakura soda, sakura float and ume fries. While the soda is just what it sounds like, the fries are more interesting. Probably inspired by its successful chocolate fries, the side comes with plum powder, which should be put on the fries and liberally shaken.

Kit Kats

It’s well-known that Nestle saves its wacky flavors for Japan. In the past the company has created a variety of Kit Kat flavors ranging from pumpkin to, yes, cherry blossom.

This year it is trying something new with pistachio and raspberry-flavored Kit Kats that come in a spring-themed box along with a sakura keychain. The company says, naturally, that the new flavor is the “perfect” hanami treat.

Lindt Chocolate

For a more sophisticated sakura treat, Lindt is rolling out its sakura macarons. The treat is filled with a cherry puree ganache. Its special macarons are available until April 12 and the company’s Lindt Chocolate Cafes.

And if that wasn’t sweet enough, Lindt also has a white chocolate cherry ice drink. Its topped with white chocolate shavings and cherry syrup.

Calbee’s sakura butter chips

Sakura butter might sound like an odd flavor, but if you’ve ever had sakura shortbread cookies, then you’ve already experienced it. What does it taste like in the form of a chip? That’s for you to find out.

Calbee has never shied away from strange flavors as it has produced shrimp, pizza and okonomiyaki chips in the past.

Red Bull

In case you need some pep in your step at the hanami party, Red Bull has a Japan exclusive for you.

Its “spring” drink, featuring a bright pink can, will keep you out of a food coma. Grab a couple of these in case your party heads off to an izakaya once the sun sets.

Baskin Robbins

Baskin Robbins is doing something really special this time around. After a 24-year hiatus it is finally bringing back its sakura salted ice cream.

The ice cream contains real sakura leaves and a hint of sea salt to contrast the light, sweet floral taste. It’s available till the end of May, so stop by your local Baskin Robbins and scoop it up.

But wait! There’s more …

You’re sure to be a hit at the hanami parties if you show up in Nike’s sakura shoes. The modern kicks have a traditional look with prints that somewhat resemble suibokuga (Japanese ink wash paintings).

The sakura line is available as skate shoes, sneakers and even high tops. So whether you’re on a short jog or taking it to the courts, you can do it while decked out in your sakura swag.

Need to have that spring feeling wherever you go? You can bring sakura experience with Itoman’s cherry blossom toilet paper.

Itoman’s cherry blossom toilet paper.

Itoman’s cherry blossom toilet paper.

This sakura toilet paper is covered with sakura print, making your trip to the bathroom almost as great as a hanami party.

Happy hanami!

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.


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.


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