Posts Tagged ‘Big (Only) in Japan’

Big (only) in Japan? Oshibori

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

A typical place setting with the oshibori on the right waiting to be enjoyed.

Japan prides itself not only on cleanliness but also a heightened appreciation of the senses, and nowhere do these two meet more pleasurably than in oshibori – the moist hand towels that are used before meals. People living abroad may be familiar with this practice from sushi restaurants, but in Japan they are everywhere – at restaurants, coffee shops, Internet cafes, hotel lobbies, apartments and homes. There doesn’t always have to be a meal – sometimes oshibori are given to visitors at an office. In general the towels are heated, although during the summer months, cold towels are often used instead.

The initial goal of an oshibori is uncontroversial – the user takes the towel, unrolls it, wipes his or her hands and enjoys the steamy sensation that seems to clean and renew. Anyone who has ever used an oshibori, however, knows that the next thought most people have is, “I must have this wonderful sensation on the entirety of my body.” This is where the controversy begins. Many wipe their face with the towel, some go as far as rubbing down their neck and a few are bold enough to unbutton the top button on their shirt and wipe down their chest.

While this seems like a good idea, especially in the summer when one is often covered in sweat, Oshibori Ohkoku (Oshibori Kingdom) provides very clear limits in their description of oshibori manners: “When wiping the face, press the oshibori to the face only so that the warmth may be felt. Never wipe anywhere other than the hands or face!”

To assess the quality of your oshibori, take a whiff. Does it smell funky? You may have a moldy oshibori. If you smell a minty, floral or citrus scent, then you can rest assured that your oshibori has been treated with an aroma to heighten the sensory pleasure.

Perhaps due to hygienic reasons, perhaps because of convenience, many places use disposable oshibori that come in plastic wrap. These are similar to wet wipes and are also often included with bento lunches and with purchases at convenience stores across the country.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori folded and decorated into little birds.

Oshibori have also created a huge industry associated with it. There are companies that collect, clean and deliver oshibori; trays to hold the towels; machines to keep the towels heated; and an izakaya in Utsunomiya has even trained a monkey to deliver the towels to customers.

While oshibori regulations might seem strict at first, Oshibori Ohkoku does know how to have fun: While you shouldn’t wipe up spills or clean your mouth of food with an oshibori, you can fold them into neat shapes as long as you return them to their original position. “Oshibori art” has generated many blogs, including “Sasa Blog,” where you can learn how to fold your oshibori into a Totoro.

How big are oshibori in your neck of the woods? As big as in Japan?

Photo: Charles Haynes (top), Daiji Hirata (bottom)

Big (only) in Japan? Rooftop beer gardens

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Hankyu Top Beer Garden

Quaffing brews in the beer garden on top of Hankyu department store

The global economy is in shambles. Summer temperatures and humidity have reached record levels all across the northern hemisphere. In Japan this means two things for certain – an increase in the sales of odorless underwear and an increase in the sales of cheap no- and low-malt beer and beer-like beverages. However, this year real beer has also made a small comeback thanks to a boom in beer gardens.

While beer gardens are a Bavarian tradition (the term comes from the German “Biergarten”), the Japanese have been at the game since 1953, when one debuted on top of the New Tokyo Osaka Daiichi Seimei Building, and they’ve added their own unique touches to the fun. Technically beer gardens can and do happen on the ground (or below ground, in which case they are called “beer terraces”) or in any open area with enough space, but in Japan there is a romantic attachment to ones held on the roofs of department stores and other tall buildings. This makes them top draws in late summer after the rainy season has passed and when fireworks season has started.

Generally the drink service at beer gardens is “nomihodai” (unlimited refills) for a set period of time (90 minutes to two hours), and often food is included as well, putting the ¥3,000-¥4,000 ticket within the budgets of many consumers.

This year Yomiuri and Nikkei Shimbun have both noted that the customer base has also diversified. While the rooftop atmospheres lit with lanterns evoke a Showa-era scene filled with smoke and businessmen, more and more women are taking advantage of the offerings, and some beer gardens are offering healthier, low-calorie fare that incorporates hijiki seaweed and burdock as well as sweets such as tai-yaki. Nikkei Trendy Net also noted that there are more women working and therefore probably more women who want to take advantage of the liberating atmosphere of beer gardens as a form of stress relief.

On a linguistic sidenote, in Japanese beer is normally written “biiru,” but when put next to the Japanese “gaaden,” it is written and spoken “bia.” Japanese commenters on Yahoo! note that this is because it’s closer to the English pronunciation of the word “beer,” but that begs the question why it isn’t always pronounced like that.

Photo: Karl Baron

Big (only) in Japan? Free fans

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Fans are commonly given out for free during the summer in Japan

Fans are commonly given out for free during the summer in Japan

If you’re suffering from the heat while out and about in the muggy urban streets of Japan this summer the good news is there’s a free way to cool down. During the summer months many companies give out free uchiwa (handheld fans) to heat-frazzled pedestrians and by doing so are able to create a feeling of goodwill and generate plenty of free advertising – free uchiwa are typically emblazoned with the logo of the company in question. It’s also possible to pick up free commemorative uchiwa at certain events (the uchiwa pictured above right was given out at last year’s sumo tournament in Ryogoku).

Uchiwa, which originally came to Japan from China,  is made by splitting the top half of a bamboo stalk. The splinters are then splayed out to create a frame for the paper that is then pasted on top. These days frames are typically made from plastic though there are still shops where you can buy the genuine article.

Uchiwa are particularly prominent if you visit local festivals where dashing men and graceful women in yukata typically carry around an uchiwa to keep cool. While many use freebie uchiwa, there are also plenty of people who have rather more stylish store bought versions. Unless you’re buying a bamboo uchiwa, store bought ones are very reasonable and even the ¥100 store stock a nice selection of traditional and modern prints. Click here for a gallery of uchiwa.

This best uchiwa freebie this summer has got to be those given out by summer popsicle brand Gari Gari Kun. These special uchiwa have QR code printed on them that allows you to register via your cell phone for a chance to get free Gari Gari Kun items. Only 500,000 fans are available and it’s reported by J-Cast that they’ll be giving 30,000 out around Shibuya Station on July 24. Grab yourself a free fan while you can.

Big (Only) in Japan? ‘Greensleeves’

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Please hold and listen to "Greensleeves" on an endless loop

Please hold and listen to “Greensleeves” on an endless loop

Japanese bureaucracy is one of the most efficient (and at times efficiently frustrating) in the world. If you know the rules of the game – registering as a foreigner, paying for national health insurance and pension, registering a personal signature stamp, etc. – then you should have no trouble with life in Japan. However, if you don’t know or don’t like the written (and unwritten) rules, then you may chafe under the societal differences, and when you call the local office to ask why you’ve received yet another bill to pay, your frustration may only increase when they put you on hold and you are forced to listen to a MIDI version of the famous English folk song “Greensleeves.” Video gamers will recognize the tune from the “King’s Quest” series of games, and history buffs will be well familiar with the 16th-century ballad that is referred to in Shakespeare and Chaucer.

For whatever reason, the tune is one of the default melodies on telephone systems in Japan. Not that the tune is the only one available; this Brother fax machine, for example, offers over 30 different selections, including “fun” songs like “It’s a Small World” and “seasonal” songs such as “Hotaru no hikari” (also known as “Auld Lang Syne”). But Greensleeves is listed in the “soothing” category along with classics like “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” A closer look reveals that this particular model is advertising melodies for the arrival of faxes – not necessarily hold music. Whether or not Greensleeves deserves to be put in the “soothing” category is a debatable issue, but another model from the same company, however, makes it very clear that in Japan, Greensleeves = hold music.

Perhaps there is some unknown connection with “King’s Quest.” Perhaps a freelance MIDI artist was just producing a ton of different music and Greensleeves tested very “soothing” in the market studies. Even Japanese are baffled by this. On Yahoo Japan, a questioner asked “Why is ‘Greensleeves’ so frequently used as hold music?” The single response says, simply, “Maybe because average people like it.”

Whatever the reason, “Greensleeves” approaches a sort of symbolic value much like “Auld Lang Syne,” which is bigger in Japan than “Greensleeves” and used across the country at stores just before closing time (to signal that they are closing) and at graduation ceremonies (to signal that the kids are finished). “Greensleeves” signals, soothingly to some and annoyingly to others, that the caller is being made to wait. Just a few more seconds and they’ll be back. Almost there. Wait for it. Wait for iiit – omatase-shimashita.

Big (only) in Japan? Tape as proof of purchase

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves its been paid for.

The tape on the handle of this bag keeps it closed and proves it’s been paid for.

While Japanese government is keen to promote its green policies, the country does go through a lot of shopping bags. If you buy boxes of sweets as souvenirs, generally the company will ask how many bags you would like, enabling you to deliver the goods to multiple individuals still bagged. Order a set meal to go, or even just a coffee to go, at a fast food restaurant, and you might find yourself with a bag containing another bag which holds your beverage. Purchase a single item at a convenience store, and you will be offered a bag. Some people collect brand-name bags for reuse as posh purses.

One exception to this bag-centric culture is tape. Japanese stores use tape to seal the bag, either by binding the handles or taping the top of the bag shut. While the tape does help prevent the bag from reopening, it also serves as a useful proof of purchase.

Good to go: This yogurt has been paid for.

Taped and good-to-go yogurt

When you purchase a single item at a convenience store in Japan, you may be offered a bag, but depending on the item, the clerk may ask, “Is just tape OK?” If you decline a bag, the staff will instead adhere a small piece of tape to the product to signal that you have followed the laws of capitalism and provided the proper amount of currency in exchange for the item.

You can do your part by asking for tape. If you have space in your backpack or handbag, practice using the phrase “Sono mama de ii desu” (“It’s fine like that.”) Alternatives would be “Tape/shiiru de ii desu” (Just tape/a sticker is fine”). Each time you use one of these phrases, you’ll be avoiding excess use of plastic. On the other hand, the bags are reusable as trash bags. That is, if you live in a municipality that doesn’t have special bags that are used to throw out different types of trash.

Do they use tape as proof of purchase where you live? Do you know of any other interesting receipt replacements? Let us know.

Big (only) in Japan? Beer salesgirls

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

beergirl

A beer uriko hard at work at the Waseda-Keio baseball game.

This marks the debut of a series where we ask “Big (only) in Japan?” We have a hunch but we want to hear from you. Have you seen this outside of Japan? Let us know in the comment section below.

In Japan, the end of March brings warmer weather, cherry blossoms and the start of the baseball season. Opening Day for the Pacific League was on March 20, and the Central League opens March 26. Lead by self-organized cheerleading teams, the crowds will chant elaborate cheers and songs (often a different cheer for each player), wave flags, jump up and down, and in the process work up a serious thirst for an ice cold beverage.

Enter the beer salesgirl – in Japanese, biiru no uriko (ビールの売り子). In Japan, “Hey, beer man!” will not only earn you strange looks because you are yelling in English – additionally, no men serve beer at baseball games here. The task is instead performed by young women who wear special backpacks that contain a miniature keg of beer. Dressed in short shorts and team uniforms, they move throughout the stadium seats, serving fresh beer right off the tap to reenergize the hordes.

Continue reading about biiru no uriko →

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