Archive for the ‘New products/services’ Category

Inside Nazo Tomo Cafe

Friday, August 16th, 2013

The other day we brought up the nazo toki (puzzle solving) trend that appears to be building even further with the appearance of Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama, Shibuya-ku’s Theatre Cybird. Though I’ve played “Professor Layton” and used to get a kick out of logic exercises as a kid, I can’t say I am “good” at puzzle solving, so it took some guts for me to walk into the quirky pop-up cafe.

I thought I would warm up with a “cup dessert,” a perilously sweet parfait-like affair with heart-shaped cake, generous amounts of whipped cream, marshmallows, cornflakes, etc., but my true warm-up was the puzzle that came with it.

nazo

Strawberry sauce cup dessert ¥500

The event is put on in collaboration with a romance sim mobile game for girls by Cybird (under the same company group that runs the theatre space) called “Ikemen Oukyū Mayonaka no Shinderera” (something like “Hottie Royal Palace: Midnight Cinderella” in English). In the cafe puzzle, you’re a princess 30 minutes before a ball and you’ve received a letter announcing a crime will occur. However, the message is in code, so you need to get hints from the game’s handsome young men to discover what the criminal is after.

coaster

Coaster prize featuring Leo from “Hottie Royal Palace: Midnight Cinderella”

Now is perhaps a good time to note that you can’t expect to do any of this without good working knowledge of Japanese. The code itself is written in katakana, but you need to be able to read and understand the instructions, too. And don’t waste precious puzzling time looking for furigana. Of course, even though my Japanese was cutting it, the other parts of my mind were embarrassingly dull. Luckily the staff are friendly and will give you further hints until you feel almost as if you solved it yourself — definitely the reason for the 100 percent pass rate compared to the actual missions, of which when I went most did not reach 20 percent.

After picking up my prize coaster, I decided to pass on the rest of the side mission in order to get down to the real business at hand. I wanted to get inside one of those “mission cubes”!

The main draw of Nazo Tomo Cafe is not the cafe at all, but the puzzles awaiting inside each of the six mission cubes. Participation costs ¥1,000. Having never played a Real Escape Game or solved any similar real-life puzzles, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but more in the mood for science fiction than murder or romance, I picked mission six, “Taimu Mashin 765~Mirai wo Sukue~” (“Time Machine 765: Save the future!”).

[Mild spoilers ahead]

Led up some stairs to a short hallway-like room, I was told not to touch anything until after the countdown started. All the puzzles are designed to be solved within 765 seconds (a number too close to na-mu-ko in Japanese, i.e. producer Namco, to be a coincidence), but I knew at first glance it would be impossible for me alone. After a short video explaining (in Japanese with Japanese captions) how the world would end as the culmination of a series of unfortunate events beginning with some guy stubbing his toe, I was faced with a seven-step brain teaser with no hints in sight. How would I push the button to save the planet from certain doom? One of the steps involved playing the Japanese word game “Shiritori,” an example of how cultural fluency can matter as much as the linguistic kind.

[End mild spoilers]

Of course, once I had failed magnificently I thought of various ways I could have tried to proceed in a swifter, more orderly fashion, but so it goes. If nothing else, know that this is not a pencil-pushing game; you’ll be pacing your cube, manipulating objects and hopefully talking things through with your friends along the way.

That’s why it’s called “Puzzle Friend Cafe.” Even just two heads are better than one, so don’t be like me showing up alone. The staff will welcome you gladly (one of them confessed player numbers had decreased a bit since they opened on July 31), but you’ll have more fun, and more of a chance for success, with a pal or five (it seems up to six can play together). I paid once and received a free ticket to try another day, so maybe I’ll see if I can round up a posse for sometime next month; although the cafe closes briefly starting Aug. 25, round two runs Sept. 6-23.

Nazo toki trend goes mainstream

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

The Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama

The Nazo Tomo Cafe in Daikanyama

A pop-up shop with a difference appeared on the fashionable streets of Shibuya last month. Open until Aug. 25, and again between Sept. 6 and Sept 23, the Nazo Tomo Cafe is a mystery waiting to be solved. Inside, for ¥1,000, customers can team up with strangers or friends to solve a puzzle of their choice. For us the appearance of this cafe is an indication that the trend for real-life puzzle games is really booming.

It all started back in 2008 when SCRAP introduced The Real Escape Game. A real-life version of popular escape games for the PC, players are trapped in a room and have to figure out clues in order to free themselves within a time limit. The idea of making these virtual rooms a physical reality was hugely popular and really took off in Japan. Indeed, SCRAP has even exported the game overseas, holding their first event in San Francisco last December.

Part of the success of the game could be due to the social aspect — players have to collaborate to escape in time. Indeed, as with paint balling, companies sign up employees to play as a team-building exercise. The idea of solving puzzles in a real-life, real-time setting has clearly taken off. Escape games are now held all over the country by a number of different companies. Different kinds of puzzle games have also begun to become popular (for example, games in which teams hunt for treasure) and amusement parks have become popular venues for these larger-scale events.

Sites like Nazo Toki provide information on upcoming events around the country. Indeed, the word nazo toki (puzzle solving) now appears to refer to the wider range of puzzle games that includes escape games. Nazo Tomo Cafe reflects this diversification and the games on offer vary to suit all tastes. Choices include diffusing a bomb or a murder mystery, as well as the classic room escape game.

Produced by Namco and managed by the Nazo Tomo website, Nazo Tomo Cafe has some impressive backing behind it — perhaps an indication that big name companies want to get in on the nazo toki trend. Check back soon for our hands-on report!

Recycled udon — a viable energy alternative or a sign of extreme extravagance?

Monday, August 12th, 2013

udon

Sanuki udon

Chiyoda Seisakusho in Kagawa Prefecture is exhibiting some of Japan’s waste-not spirit (mottainai!) by using leftover udon scraps to make electricity. Noodle power! But is this technique really as eco-friendly as it sounds?

Chiyoda was already making bio-ethanol out of scrapped udon, but there are dregs left over. The power plant project began from trying to think of a way to put those dregs to use. By fermenting them, plus uneaten udon collected from restaurants (1.5 tons, 1 ton respectively per day), methane gas is created, which can rotate a turbine. Chiyoda estimates it’ll be able to produce enough kilowatts to power 50 households in a year and that it’ll start selling power to Shikoku Electric Power Company as early as September. Additionally, since it got a waste disposal license, it can make extra money just by collecting the udon shop garbage.

All told, Chiyoda expects to make ¥12 million (about $124,572) per year. This, from an initial investment (at least, for the plant) of ¥80 million (about $830,480). If others are keen on replicating this feat, the company is also planning on taking orders for plants themselves beginning sometime this year.

While it may be possible to apply this idea to other starchy food items, such as potatoes or rice, udon is supposedly especially efficient.

Awesome, so villages in the future will live and run on udon! Not so fast. Critically thinking onlookers bring up some good points, the most obvious of which is:

“At first glance this seems eco-friendly, but aren’t we just making too much udon?”

This sentiment from a 2ch message board user also came up in the Aug. 8 episode of “Sukkiri!” a Japanese talk/variety show featuring commentator Terry Ito.

Kagawa Prefecture, famous for Sanuki Udon, makes 47,080 tons of udon a year (which is almost double the second highest, Saitama). It also scraps 6,000 tons a year. “The fact that 6,000 tons get scrapped is shocking. Makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to reduce that amount,” Ito said.

A reporter for the TV show investigated one reason for the massive waste. In a noodle shop in Takamatsu he was served bukkake udon in 14.7 seconds. That speed means cooks are boiling noodles ahead of the moment an order comes in — a practice certainly not limited to Kagawa Prefecture, by the way — but if they are boiled for over 20 minutes they lose the consistency that customers expect and are tossed. Tossed!

“I know I’m harping on this, but couldn’t we control ourselves and get 6,000 down to 3,000? I really don’t like the idea that throwing it away becomes justifiable,” Ito said.

The bottom line seems to be that as long as we don’t use udon power plants as an excuse to waste udon, then everything is fine. Stretch your mottainai mindset a little further and instead of thinking of creative ways to re-purpose garbage, reduce the amount of garbage in the first place. That’s a technique we can all stand to emulate.

J-blip: Bandai’s smartphone panties

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

A new line of smartphone underpants has recently gone on sale. The mini panties, made by Bandai, are worn at the base of the smartphone, covering the home button. A home button sticker is also provided to protect your phone’s most thumbed area when the knickers have been removed. Aimed at teens of 15 years and above, the first range was introduced in March this year and sold so well that a brand new line has just gone on sale. You can find them in Gashapon machines. Costing just ¥200, the new styles include Mount Fuji, a banana print and lurid pink.

To see the full range check out Fashion Snap’s gallery.

Resting in peace has never been so easy

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

The final frontier

The final frontier: One option for sea lovers

As Japan struggles to come to terms with growing numbers of elderly, the death care industry is evolving in response. This past week, for instance, a new website was launched extolling the benefits of scattering ashes at sea and earlier this month a new home grave went on the market.

Traditionally, funerals are a costly affair in Japan, involving a lengthy ceremony and expensive internment at a family grave. As modern office-building cemeteries become increasingly popular, other even cheaper options for burial are trending.

Sansoku Center provides information on scattering ashes at sea

Sansoku Center provides information on scattering the ashes of the dearly departed at sea

Take, for instance, forest internment. An article in Rocket News late last year highlighted this growing trend. New forest cemeteries are becoming increasingly popular. Not just viewed as a cheaper alternative to having your remains stored in a traditional graveyard, forest cemeteries are viewed as being a natural way to dispose of human remains, though, this being Japan, bodies are still cremated in the traditional manner.  Reportedly the first forest cemetery in Japan was established in 1999 in Iwate Prefecture and that since then, they’ve been rising in popularity.

Another option for those who want to get back to nature and also want to avoid costly maintenance fees for an expensive family grave is to have your ashes scattered at sea. This is a fairly new concept for most Japanese, which is probably why the web portal Sankotsu Center, which gives information out on sea burials as well as providing links to companies providing this service, was launched.

According to the website, while forest burials have to be done at designated sites, apart from a stipulation that you be a certain distance from the shore, there are fewer rules about the scattering of ashes at sea. The website has links to 24 companies who provide this service and details just how much you’ll have to shell out for a sea burial. Blue Ocean Ceremony in Tokyo charge ¥296,000 for all the bells and whistles, which includes a Buddhist ceremony, free drinks and space for 24 guests aboard a chartered cruiser. The cheapest option, where you entrust the ashes to the care of a crew who perform a short ceremony and dispose of the ashes with flowers, costs just ¥53,500.

One drawback for relatives, however, may be that with a sea burial, it’s not possible to visit a relative’s grave to carry out traditional ceremonies. But In Blooms, a company that sells funerary altars for homes, have come up with a solution that will also be handy for people who don’t have enough time to visit the family grave. Their Temoto Haka home gravestones have a compartment inside for storing a small amount of a relative’s bone inside. Made in collaboration with Art Glass, these monuments come in a range of colors to match your home décor!

Photo by Adam Kahtava/CC by 3.0

Limited-edition burgers, ep. deux

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

For the second edition of McDonald’s “Jewelry” burger series, the company released the Black Diamond Quarter Pounder. While last week’s Gold Ring left us somewhat unimpressed, the Golden Arches’ latest was a different story. This time, a beef patty was sandwiched between two brioche buns, grilled onions and mushrooms, Emmental cheese and black truffle sauce. As before, the burger arrived gussied up in an oversize, ribbon-adorned bag. I could already smell that unmistakable truffle aroma. Inside, there were two pamphlets explaining the contents of this deluxe sandwich. The burger itself came in a foil-trimmed box.

The arrival

Uncovering the burger from its elaborate serving arrangement revealed a surprisingly appetizing aesthetic: melty cheese, symmetrical mushrooms and a nearly spherical bun. We’re talking darn close to the advertisements we’ve seen nearly everywhere with Mr. Honda encouraging us to “BITE!” Continue reading about the Black Diamond →

Cashing in on Fuji fever

Friday, July 12th, 2013

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lake_Kawaguchiko_Sakura_Mount_Fuji_3.JPG

Commemorative merchandise celebrating this majestic mountain has been flying off the shelves

Since the announcement that Mount Fuji, Japan’s most iconic landmark, had finally won World Heritage status on June 23, Fuji fever has swept the nation. As souvenirs commemorating the event hit the shelves, sales of Fuji-themed merchandise were brisk. Stores selling climbing gear to those who have been inspired to make the pilgrimage up Fuji have also been doing well.

Loft in Shibuya reported that sales of Fuji merchandise, which had been growing steadily prior to the announcement, suddenly shot up by 150% — the bestselling item being a Fuji-san folding fan that retails for ¥2,100. They’re not anticipating a downturn in trade either: When the shop gets a refit in September there’s going to be a special area in the new “Japan Souvenir” floor dedicated to Fuji souvenirs.

New products also went on sale to commemorate the occasion. Among these is a Mount Fuji wooden cup and ball game that costs a rather eye-watering ¥6,090, and a rubber stamp that incorporates elements of the famous 36 views of Mount Fuji, which would set you back ¥3,360. In addition, blue traffic cones with a snow capped peaks have suddenly popped up in car parks around the country. Formally sold mainly to businesses in the area around Mount Fuji, 300 of these cones were sold in the last month, three times the amount of typical annual sales.

The climbing season for Mount Fuji began this month and shops selling climbing equipment have been cashing in. Sales have also been boosted by the inspiring news back in May that 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura managed to scale the summit of Everest. Mizuno outdoor sports told Sankei Biz that sales of hiking gear for women are almost double that of last year, an indication that the yama girl trend is continuing to climb.

Mizuno outdoor sports store also runs hiking schools and a trip to Mount Fuji for July sold out almost as soon as it went on sale. But hordes of hikers heading for the mountain are putting a strain on local infrastructure. The authorities of Fujinomiya, one of the gateways to the mountain,  have announced that the toilet facilities available will not be sufficient to deal with the increased volume of hikers and are asking climbers to take their own portable toilets with them.

While toilets will be in short supply, Wi-Fi access in the area ought to be excellent. As of June, Yamanashi, one of the prefectures Fuji is located in, has 933 free Wi-Fi spots. Visitors surfing the web might want to download a free new app from Fuji-san Beno, which tells you what events are going on in the area during the day of your visit. More info can be found at Fujiyama Navi. The site launched July 8, and offers tours, hotels, and, of course, Fuji-themed merchandise.

More Fuji goods on our Pinterest board: Mount Fuji mania

Read more about the economics of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site at our sister blog, Yen for Living.

Photo by Midori via Wikicommons

Kimo-kawaii: a chronology in 13 steps

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Kimo-kawaii, the slang that mashes up kimoi (yucky, gross; which is a shorter, slangier version of kimochiwarui, itself) and kawaii (cute, sweet) has become an apt description of more and more things over the years. While aficionados might disagree on what defines kimo-kawaii, generally if something has an eerie, sweet creepiness that makes it hard to look at but harder to look away, it’s kimo-kawaii.

Here are 13 things deemed so in Japan, in chronological order:

1999: Dancing Baby, a funky CG animation, became a meme in United States in the ‘90s (even appearing on the TV show “Ally McBeal”), but it became so popular in Japan that Toyota put it in a Cami ad (above). Young people of the time who had already begun saying kimo-kawaii applied it here in an early use case.

Mid 2000s: Ungirls, the comedy duo comprised of Takushi Tanaka and Yoshiaki Yamane became known as kimo-kawaii, somewhat cruelly, mostly due to their looks. Over the years and depending on whom you ask the assessment seems to change from “Tanaka is kimoi, but Yamane is kawaii” to just deciding that Tanaka himself is kimo-kawaii. Or maybe not even kawaii. . . Last year on the variety show “London Hearts” when Tanaka ranked high (low?) on a list of most disliked celebs, he said everyone should give being him a try because it’s a hellish life, but he will keep doing it as long as he lives.

Kobitozukan

Kobitozukan

May 2006: “Kobito Zukan” originated as a picture book illustrated by Toshitaka Nabata. Literally “dwarf encyclopedia,” these weird little humanoids were first aimed at children. Adult fans, however, greatly expanded the fan base and the dwarves became a popular Nintendo 3DS video game last year. The official online store is also chock full of figurines, which one could argue are an art form all their own.

By the way, 2006 is the year that the word “kimo-kawaii” is considered to have really “arrived.”

August 2007: Face Bank, the piggy bank designed by artist Eiichi Takada that actually pigs out on your savings, went on sale. When you place a coin near its mouth, it opens and swallows the currency — a perfect way to add some kimo-kawaii to your everyday life.

2008  Noi Asano’s manga “Chiisai Oyaji Nikki” (something like “Little Old Man Diary”) about a girl who one day discovers a tiny man began airing as a series of anime shorts  last year and most recently got promoted with latte art at Double Tall in Shibuya.

nishikokun

Nishiko-kun

October 2010 Nishiko-kun (right), the mascot of Nishi-Kokubunji, was born. The “fairy” is one of many regional mascots that have become widespread across Japan in recent years. Unlike its traditionally cute counterparts, however, Nishiko-kun is a lanky, armless thing with a huge head that evokes the image of a happy manhole. His proportions have made for some especially awkward dance moves, but he remains oddly alluring, don’t you think?

October 2010 Jigokuno No Misawa‘s “Kakkokawaii Sengen” comic was collected and published. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the extravagantly eccentric singer known for being the current flag-bearer of Harajuku kawaii fashion, is a big fan of series. In fact, she had a cameo in the comic last year — of course with the artist’s trademark pudgy-faced style.

nameko

Nameko

June 2011 BeeWorks‘s “Mushroom Garden” (aka “Nameko Saibai Kit”) smartphone game series has exploded in popularity since its release two years ago. These nasty-yet-endearing fungi have gained quite the following (ask almost any elementary schooler), leading to an avalanche of merchandise, including a Nendoroid that reaches back to its “Touch Detective” roots on Nintendo DS.

June 2012 Body part jewelry makes a kimo-kawaii splash from across the globe. Handmade in the U.K. and sold on crafty website Etsy, these doodads allowed people to attach ears to their ears, mouths to their fingers and noses to their necks, among other things.

alpaca

Alpaca

Fall 2012: Later that year, the freaky-looking toy with its own language, Furby, relaunched with a smartphone app and a Momoiro Clover Z campaign (including the above commercial).

March 2013: There are plenty of kimo-kawaii videogames, but Cocosola‘s smash hit “Alpaca Evolution” is a textbook example of how strangely addicting bizarre characters can be. Your objective is to absorb other alpacas in a cannibalistic fashion as you mutate into a more and more grotesque creature. A prequel has already been released and it looks like the merch parade is marching along.

June 2013:  Isopods are something like gigantic, aquatic cockroaches. Naturally, the Numazu Deep Sea Aquarium decided to make a life-sized stuffed animal based on the critter, because who wouldn’t want to cuddle one? As evidence to the popularity of kimo-kawaii nationwide, all 140 were sold out within a few hours, despite costing a hefty ¥6,090 (around 60 USD) apiece. Another creepy aquatic sensation is based on the NHK television documentary that captured footage of a giant squid  for the first time. With help from the National Museum of Nature and Science, the TV channel is selling a variety of tentacle-related merchandise.

shingeki3

“Attack on Titan” stamps for LINE

June 2013: “Attack on Titan”-branded LINE stamps feature a number of human characters from the anime, but also explore a kimo-kawaii side of the monstrous titans that will give fans a chuckle (or surprise/gross out the unsuspecting friend on the other end of your LINE chat).

This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor do we presume to be authorities on the matter. In fact while researching we noticed Tofugu had nicely summarized the trend recently. We’re sure the wave of kimo-kawaii will be good surfing for years to come, so remember this useful word when you come across a sort-of-cute character that makes you feel kind of icky at the same time.

Additional research for this story contributed by Emily Balistrieri. (Full disclosure: Emily is the Japanese-English translator of “Alpaca Evolution.”)

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