Sunday, August 31, 2008

Changes... (Part 1)

Steve's comment to my last post has led to this entry. Thanks, Steve!

Back when I lived in Japan in the early 1990's, it was common to see adult men reading manga on the trains (Weekly Morning, Big Comic Spirits, Shonen Jump and Shonen Sunday). This was really good from my perspective because they'd leave their magazines on the overhead racks when they were done with them - free manga for me! But then the Aum Shinrikyo cult conducted their sarin gas attacks on several trains in Tokyo and that resulted in some big changes. First, all of the trash bins were removed from the platforms, and second, people were "encouraged" to not leave trash on the trains. With the removal of the trash bins, it became less convenient to bring magazines on the train to read.

However, a second event also took place that had an effect - the bursting of the economic bubble in 1994. With the wave of layoffs and wage cuts, homeless people were being paid to collect the magazines (manga and non-manga) to be resold at a discount by people sitting on beach towels in front of the train stations. So, the magazines would be gone before I could get to them. Bye bye free manga.

Steve's comment is that his compatriots in England don't necessarily approve of a 44-year-old reading "kids" manga. I wanted to respond with a description of how the Japanese would react here. Obviously, there are certain manga aimed at kids (anything in Shonen Jump for boys, anything in Ribon or Nakayoshi for girls). But, there is manga that will appeal to everyone - pachinko, mah-jong, Go and golf manga for men; horror, romance and "OL" manga for women. So, here, manga's not necessarily "for young boys only".

But, what do we see happening on the trains now? The most common activities on the trains are: 1) Sleeping. 2) talking to friends, classmates or co-workers. 3) Playing games on hand-held sets (PSP) or cell phones, and text messaging on cell phones. 4) Reading newspapers, print magazines and novels. People still read some manga, but as an activity on the trains it's a very distant #5.

The Japan Times ran an article on the Japanese publishing industry a week ago. There's a big slump in the print business because more people are using the net or doing other things (like text messaging and games on their phones), and doing less reading. Although this hasn't affected the manga division yet.

Finally, how would the Japanese react to a 44-year-old man on a train reading "Sailor Moon"? They'd 1) be looking over his shoulder to read along with him; 2) Be wondering why this "weirdo" is reading something that ended its run 11 years ago. He should be reading "Puri Kura".

Saturday, August 30, 2008

When Worlds Collide, Part 3 of 3

My point in this diatribe is that the U.S. and Japan have polar opposite approaches to self-image. In the U.S., we see people trying to claim to be normal, yet spending all their money as obssessive fanboys on NASCAR, film celebrities and American pro sports. They may call themselves a "Bears fan" or a "Cowbows fan" as a form of self identification, and that's ok. But, watch someone else winning a spelling bee - and the derogatory words "nerd" and "geek" start flying around. Yet the person that won the spelling bee isn't going to call themselves a "nerd", they're "just normal people that like competing in spelling bees". That is, we're supposedly just average people that do average things. Mainstream Americans are intolerant of behavior that doesn't fit their "norm" (like attending anime conventions, doing cos play, or sitting outside in a line over night to buy the latest iPhone).

In contrast the Japanese follow normality itself as an obsession, fighting to fit into the rest of society as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible. That is, "being normal" becomes a lifestyle, rather than a set of behaviors. Yet, those not in the mainstream aren't really ostracized, either. "Otaku" and "mania" are used here to describe anyone that follows a hobby extensively, giving us "cosplay otaku" or "motorcycle mania". The followers of any given hobby happily define themselves within the contexts of this hobby ("Hi, I'm Aiko, and I'm a yakiniku mania. Pleased to meet you." "Hi, I'm Tarou and I'm a baseball otaku. Same here.") The desire to fit in with others forces the Japanese to be more tolerant of those that otherwise wouldn't fit in either.

It boils down to labels. In the U.S., labels get used to identify "us" versus "them". "We're normal, healthy, meat-loving, God-fearing, NASCAR fans from Texas. We bleed burnt-orange. And you're not." In Japan, there is still an "us versus them" mentality, but being different doesn't necessarily mean being wrong, or evil, as it is in the U.S. Instead, labels allow individuals within a group to draw boundaries for themselves. "i.e. - I'm a manga nerd. That's what I like, and that's who I am. Please accept me for what I am, as I'll accept you for who you are."


Friday, August 29, 2008

When Worlds Collide, Part 2 of 3

What got me wondering about intolerance of eccentric behavior was a Japanese TV special that ran Monday night. Now, granted that America has never really been all that accepting of fanboys and the sort - science fiction fans were social outcasts until the 1980's, anime is still looked down on with suspicion by the mainstream, and anyone that likes to study is called a "nerd" or "brainiac" as an insult. But, the people featured on Monday's show, while marveled at for their fanaticism in Japanese media, would be getting death threats and calls "to get a life" in the U.S.

The show was titled something like "Beauty Mania" in Japanese (the Japan Times listed it as "Girls Kick Ass!" in English). It was basically a look at a number of women that enjoy following their obsessions, from one woman that ran a ninja-themed restaurant, to an 80-year-old power lifter, to a woman that loves yaki niku (grilled beef; when she has dinner, she goes to 3 or 4 separate restaurants for each course), to another woman that has her entire room furnished with Chanel goods. The two biggest "mania beauties" (where "beauty" just meant "female") were the "youth beauty" and the "hanabi beauty". The "youth beauty" was a 50+-year-old that spent thousands on plastic surgery to look more like 30 (making plastic surgery into a lifestyle). And the "hanabi beauty" was a fireworks chaser that spent thousands of dollars on video cameras alone just to film the fireworks events that she attends (she once camped out 1 week in advance in order to claim a space at a popular fireworks display).

When interviewed, every one of these women happily used the word "mania" for themselves. It's not an insult, it's a way of life.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

When Worlds Collide, Part 1 of 3

A few days ago, the Japan Times paper ran a small commentary piece from an English teacher working here in Tokyo. The teacher wanted to highlight the differences in U.S. and Japanese interpretations of certain words. In the commentary, he writes about a female student that wants to know what the difference is between being a "nerd" and being a "geek". She's a manga fan, and had described herself as a comics nerd to an American she'd met online, and he'd countered that she's just a geek, not a nerd. The student looked up the two words in a dictionary and it just confused the issue. So, which was she, a nerd or a geek?

The teacher's response - "neither. You're just weird".

The teacher goes on to say that he eventually realized that she was calling herself an "otaku" in Japanese, and wanted to know what the equivalent word was in English. However, in his mind, this was all aberrant behavior (he could tell this because he's "normal", and anything that doesn't fit his definitions must be aberrant). The teacher never actually gets around to answering the question and the girl announces that "she's a nerd" and that's the end of it.

What got me about the entire article was that it was so judgmental. The girl lists several examples of "fixated behavior" (a teacher visiting pop idol websites every morning before starting school; her own love of manga) and the teacher immediately gives each example a derogatory label. Then I noticed the same thing happening in other western articles, and I started wondering when Americans had gotten so intolerant of eccentric behavior.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Living in Merrie Olde Japane

One of the best parts about living in Tokyo is that you never know what you'll find next. But, this shouldn't be too surprising since there are a lot of people here that like really getting into their hobbies. Further, Japan not only enjoys American culture, but that of the rest of the world as well. Of course, this includes Europe, and the Renaissance. If you're familiar with the Society for Creative Anachronism in the U.S., then you may already know of the similar group Avalon in Japan. And yes, Avalon has a place to practice in Tokyo - it's Castle Tintagel.

Castle Tintagel is the work of Jay Noyes, a veteran medieval researcher and longsword instructor. It's nice little practice floor and costume sales shop located 10-minutes-walk west of Mejiro station on the Yamanote line. When I dropped by it was kind of quiet because of the rain, but Jay was kind enough to give me some tips on longsword fighting and let me watch a couple of classes. Below is a direct quote from an e-mail he sent me.

"Tintagel is really the result of a hobby getting out of hand. I started fighting in the SCA something like 17 years ago. I loved it, and when I returned to Japan. I kept it up.

"The problem is that it spread. I needed armour, so I had to learn to do leather work and metal work. I needed clothes, so I had to learn to sew. Most importantly, I needed other people to fight with, so I founded Avalon and spent years trying to teach other people how to fight and get their own armour. Then I decided that I wasn't satisfied with the techniques used, so I wanted to study authentic medieval martial arts. Years of practicing using translations of period books and a trip to Germany to take intensive lessons with Stefan Dieke, a longsword teacher with a school near Dusseldorf, and I found myself with a lot of resources and training skills. Suddenly, I look around and all that is left is start a school so I could attract others to my hobby so I could have more people to fight with.

"So, I got a building, and I knew I wanted to teach, but I also knew that I couldn't afford the kind of building that I need just by teaching martial arts. So I came up with a plan to help teachers start their own classes in Tintagel during the available hours. From among my friends I found costume making teachers and dance teachers, and over time we found an excellent teachers of yoga , flower arrangement, and English and German languages. To round out our classes, Tintagel is working with Terra Kids to provide a number of child and family oriented services during our daytime hours: Kids Sports (athletics for pre-schoolers), Kids Storytime and Art, and Baby Sign, the latter being a innovative class to teach simple sign communication to prelinguistic toddlers.

"On weekends, we often use Tintagel as an event space, both for Tintagel's own monthly events, such as Game Day, and the Cosplay Tea Party, and for externally produced activities, such as Cost Mary's Charity Bazaar and even a wedding.

"Oh yes, we also sell concessions, drinks, and run a costume shop and armoury.

"As you can see, we are pretty much all over the place when it comes to services. The most commonly heard question from newcomers to Tintagel is, 'What _is_ this place, anyway?'"

The Castle Tintagel website is all-Japanese right now, so if you want to visit, drop Jay a note and ask for directions and the best time to visit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's another word for "Oishii"?

After living in Japan for a while, reading manga, watching TV, going to restaurants, etc., I started wondering if the Japanese had any other words for describing good food beyond oishii (for women) and umai (mainly used by men, occasionally pronounced “umee”). Then, as I was about to ask this question, I found myself at MOS Burger for lunch. And there, printed on the menu was this little blurb: We asked the staff at 28 of our shops around Japan to tell us how they say that food is “sugoku oishii” (really delicious) in their part of the country. Below are the answers. The first part of each line is the answer in a specific dialect, and the second part is the prefecture (or town) where that dialect is spoken.

Note that “e” is soft, as in “open”; “u” is hard, as in “you”; “o” is hard, as in “ghost”; “a” is soft, as in “ah”; and “i” sounds like a hard “e”, as in “see”. Combined vowels “ii” and “ee” are held twice as long; “ai” is pronounced like a hard “i”, as in “sigh”.

Buchi umaitcha --------- Yamaguchi
Mageni maizunee -------- Shimane
Bokkee umee ------------ Okayama
Tadda nmee ------------- Ishikawa
Nanmara umai ----------- Hokkaido
Ikkyona umakabai ------- Nagasaki
Gabai umakaa ----------- Saga
Gyaan oishiikaa -------- Fukuoka
Metcha oishiiyan ------- Hyogo
Do-i unmeimon datcha- -- Niigata
Nmai ------------------- Yamagata
Maanzu ume ------------- Akita
Mee -------------------- Aomori
Taigya umakaken -------- Kumamoto
Dogechi oishii --------- Oita
Mutcha umai ------------ Osaka
Umaini- ---------------- Mie
De-rya- umya- ---------- Aichi
Oishiijan -------------- Kanagawa
Iginari umee ----------- Miyagi
Ippe- ma-saibi-ndo- ---- Okinawa
Wazze umai ------------- Kagoshima
Deke umee -------------- Miyazaki
Kojanto umaizeyo ------- Kochi
Yaniko- umai ----------- Akiyama
Erai umaikke ----------- Shizuoka
Hanpanee umai ---------- Tokyo
Umakappe yo- ----------- Ibaragi

Note also that the majority of the word variations are on “sugoku” which means “a lot”, or “really”. Otherwise, the rest of the phrases are just modified pronunciations of “umai”. (So, to answer my original question, no (at least, not an alternate word that is in common usage). The primary words for describing good food are umai and oishii).

Monday, August 25, 2008

A View from the Train - Part 3

The following story was an isolated incident and I haven't seen anything like this since, but it really stood out at the time.

One day, back in 1995, I was riding the Yamanote train and just sightseeing around Tokyo. I reached the Ueno station, and decided to get out to go visit Ueno Zoo. I get off the platform, use my ticket to go through the ticket gates, and head down a flight of concrete steps to reach the street. Suddenly, I hear some noise behind me and I turn around. At the top of the steps is a woman in her thirties pushing her way through the ticket gates, followed by one of the station personnel. From what I can tell, she didn't have the $2 (220 yen) to pay for her ride and was trying to escape before she got caught. Granted, this was at the time following the collapse of the Japanese economy, and money was getting tight, but train tickets for getting around in Tokyo still weren't that expensive, comparatively, so it seemed unusual that the $2 would be that big of an issue for her.

The woman slipped and tumbled 10 feet down the steps. She laid in a crumpled ball, pleading to be allowed to leave the station without being persecuted for skipping out on paying for the ticket. Three station personnel converged on her and hauled her back up the stairs to the office to hold her until the police arrived.

During all of this, the rest of the people entering and leaving the station just gave the woman a wide berth and otherwise ignored her. It was all just part of another day of living in Tokyo.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A View from the Train - Part 2

Sometimes you only see one part of a culture by riding its public transportation, and you have to guess at the rest.

Back when I was living in Tokyo in 1995, it was pretty common for me to have to take the Yamanote line home late in the evening. I've mentioned in an earlier blog entry that the Yamanote is the only line in Tokyo that travels in a loop, and the trains complete the loop once an hour. What this means is that if someone has no better place to go, they can just pay the 130 yen to get into the station, and then ride around in the Yamanote all day.

Well, around 10:00 PM is when certain salarymen in Tokyo would finish their post-work drinking sessions and then get on the train. However, they may not necessarily have had anywhere to go. So, they would pick a bench at one end of the car or the other, place their shoes and glasses neatly on the floor (some would even have a small towel that they would put their toothbrush on next to their glasses), roll their suit jacket up to form a pillow, and sleep until the trains stop running. Because they were on the Yamanote, they were never more than a few miles away from where they started. It was like they were setting up home on the train.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A View from the Train - Part 1

You can learn a lot about a culture by taking its public transportation (example: try riding any Greyhound bus at 3 AM from Amarillo to El Paso. 'Nuf said.)

Back when I first lived in Tokyo, in 1995, I was riding the train home from watching anime at a friend's house. It was around 10 PM and I was standing down at one end of the car. The train stops and a Japanese family gets on from the platform. Based on their clothing, they're from the countryside, and consist of the husband, his very pregnant wife and some older relatives (probably on the wife's side). As the woman works her way across the car, a Tokyo businessman shoots past her to throw himself into the only available open bench seat in the car. The businessman immediately slumps his head down to avoid making eye contact with everyone and tries to fall asleep. The husband is outraged at this and starts yelling at the guy to stand up and let the pregnant woman take the weight off her feet. The businessman refuses to react, so the husband yells even more and slaps the guy about the head and shoulders. This goes on for about two minutes, until finally the businessman finally tilts his head up and tells the husband to stop hitting him.

Of course, this just makes the husband angrier and he slaps the other guy in the head even harder and keeps yelling at him to let his wife sit down. About this time, I get to my stop and I get out to change trains, so I didn't get to see how everything played out.

In the U.S., the businessman might have ended up pulling out a screwdriver and attacking the husband. Or, someone else could have stood up and offered their seat to the wife. Or, the rest of the family, led by the wife, would have ripped the businessman to shreds.

In Japan, the situation resulted in the rest of the family, led by the wife, moving to the other end of the car to distance themselves from the husband because he was making an embarrassing display of himself. Yes, the husband was the one at fault for inconveniencing the other riders in the car with his yelling.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Living in Japan - Semi

If you read any manga, ever watch any anime, or spend more than 1 day in Japan during the Summer, you will encounter them. Even if you spend your entire life indoors, you can't escape the sound - an incessant high-pitched buzzing that occasionally breaks into a "mi-in, mi-in" hum. Semi.

(Semi on the side of a tree in a Tokyo park)

In English, cicada. The ones in Tokyo are huge - 1"-2" long body with a 3" wing span. They generally attach themselves to a tree and sit there, rubbing the backs of their wings together to make the noise. But, if you get within about 5 feet of them, they'll fly off. And these things are loud! It may sound like the entire neighborhood is covered with them, but it only takes a few to dominate the air. One year ago, I was walking through a park and accidentally discovered a semi sitting on the side of a tree. Even from 6 feet away, the buzzing was enough to hurt my ears.

However, it's getting to the end of August now, and the semi are starting to die off. I've found about 4-5 bodies on the apartment stairwell. But, they are resilient. One may be lying on its back, legs in the air, looking dead, but if I walk up to it, it revives and struggles to fly away. There are broken remains, though, where they've been stepped on.

The numbers may be declining as the Summer fades away, but the noise just doesn't seem to stop...

I mentioned Lafcadio Hearn in the entry on Obon Ghost Stories and stated that he also wrote about Japanese insects back at the turn of the 1900's. There is a website that reprinted Hearn's chapter on semi, and it's really worth reading.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Living in Japan - Frozen Juice

You know you're in a country where people routinely spend the Summer standing outside on the train platform for long stretches in 88+ degree weather and 60+% humidity, when you walk into a convenience store and see an entire freezer section dedicated to plastic cups of ice cubes and bottles of frozen juice. Obviously, the idea is to buy a cold bottle of water along with the cup of ice, and then try to nurse the ice until the train arrives. But, as for the juice, this is not what an American would expect - frozen concentrate that you mix with a few cans of water to make a full pitcher of juice. No, this is a 16 ounce bottle of mikan (kind of a mix between an orange and a tangerine) juice (other juices also available) with the word "frozen" in the name on the bottle, that has been put into the freezer. Obviously the frozen juice isn't going to melt quickly, so you effectively have an ice pack you can press against your forehead if you need it, and a slow trickle of juice that you sip as you wait. If you're really thirsty, then you also need to buy a bottle of unfrozen juice to drink while the frozen bottle slowly melts.

Keep in mind that the Japanese consider it uncivilized to eat while walking outside, so if someone does buy juice, tea or water, they're going to wait to consume it until they get to the platform (or they get home), giving it a little more time to melt before being opened.

In older apartment complexes, the air conditioner/heater (called the "aircon") is physically built into the wall, making it hard to replace with a more powerful unit, or if the old aircon burns out. And, these aircon units were never all that powerful when they were new. This means that in older apartments that are 30 feet wide and 100 feet long, the cool air from the living room isn't going to make it to the bedrooms at the back of the building. This is another reason why buying a cup of ice or a bottle of frozen juice would be popular on the way back home - it gives you something to hold on to in the heat when you're sitting in the hot, stuffy apartment.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Living in Japan - Bikes

A lot has been written about bicycles in Japan on other sites, so I will just concentrate on making a few observations of my own.

(The mama chari with basket, no child carrier)

Japan as a whole is very honest, and theft is not a big problem. Interestingly, though, there are two things that are fair game: umbrellas and bicycles. Both are considered to be really cheap, and are often just tossed to the side of the road (or into a river) when broken or no longer needed. This is especially true of the lower-end bicycles referred to as "mama chari". Mama chari are simple single-speed bikes that can have a basket on the front and/or back and cost between 10,000 to 20,000 yen ($93 to $186). It's easy to see why a $93 bike would be considered disposable. And, if a salaryman is out drinking late at night and misses the last train, grabbing someone else's mama chari and riding it home is the kind of thing that's common enough as to just be shrugged off.

(Bike parking lot, residential)

Naturally, mountain, folding and multi-gear road bikes are more expensive, and more painful to lose, but they're still fair game if left unlocked. Thing is, with Japan's current weak economy and rising costs combined with stagnant salaries and stripped-down bonuses, there's a lot of talk in the news about how people are struggling to reduce their spending. Throwing out a couple hundred dollars every few months for a new bike is going to add up, yet the attitude towards bicycles as being disposable doesn't seem to have changed much.

This becomes really clear on "street clean-up day". I'm not sure what the official name for this is, but last week a notice went out in the neighborhood that unclaimed bikes would be tagged and towed. Soon after, I saw a flatbed pickup truck stop in front of a convenience store, and two guys got out and started picking up tagged bikes. Within a few minutes, there were 20 bikes on the back of the pickup, and the two guys were still just cleaning up the sidewalk immediately in front of that one store. Extrapolating, the total number of unclaimed bikes in this one town has be to in the thousands per year.

(Bike shelter)

What prevents someone from simply grabbing an unclaimed bike and making it theirs? The answer: the occasional road block. Every so often, the neighborhood police will set up stop points on major streets and ask cyclists to show that the bike is registered to them. (The rule is that if you buy a new or used bike, you have to register it at the nearest police kiosk.) If the bike's not registered to you, then you risk having it confiscated. And, if you try to register someone else's bike, it's going to raise red flags. On the other hand, you can go to the local municipal office and buy unclaimed bikes from the recycling department (I may try this to see if I can get a deal on a good bike).

(Bike parking lot, in front of train station)

Now, another interesting thing about mama chari is that they're often used by housewives to carry 2 or 3 small children when doing shopping or to take them to pre-school. In this case, the basket is replaced by baby seats. What's interesting is that this is illegal. By law, mama chari are not allowed to carry more than one person. Unfortunately, using a car instead of a bike is expensive, and it's not always legal to park a car in front of a pre-school to drop the kids off. So, young mothers are caught between a rock and a hard place here. This was a central story element in a language lesson a couple of months back. A few weeks after the final installment of the jpod lesson aired, the Japanese government announced that they would work towards legalizing having passengers on mama chari, but that it would require re-engineering the mama chari to be safer (probably by turning it into a tricycle). Of course, if the new mama chari come out, they're going to cost more and take up more space on the sidewalk when abandoned. Such is the price of progress...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cost of living in Japan - Manga

One of the interesting side effects of living in Japan is the slow nickel-and-diming you get if you like to read manga. Ignore DVD rentals, or the $80/DVD if you buy them outright, or the $35 per music CD. What will really drain your bank account over time is buying manga.

Weekly magazines like Shonen Jump, Shonen Sunday, Shonen Champion, Shonen Magazine, Young Jump, Morning, Young Sunday, Business Jump and Spirits cost between $2 and $3 per issue. Then there's the monthly versions of all of the Shonen magazines plus the monthly-only magazines like Afternoon, Ribbon, GanGan, Nakayoshi, Ikki, Beam, Blade, Gum, Young King Ours, Bom Bom, etc. that are in the 500 yen each range. The issue isn't that all these magazines exist, but rather that each magazine has maybe only 1 or 2 titles worth reading, and if you want to read everything that you like, you're going to have to buy lots of magazines per week or month.

For me, Shonen Sunday has Cross Game and Meitantei Konan; Shonen Jump has Bleach; Afternoon has Gun Smith Cats and Mushishi; Shonen Magazine has Negima; GanGan has Soul Eater and Full Metal Alchemist; Weekly Morning has Vagabond; Sunday GX has Black Lagoon and Wilderness; and Young King Ours has Geobreeders, just to list a few of the titles I like. It adds up after a while. (And I'm ignoring the issue of recycling a 4-foot stack of 400-page magazines per week. Monthly Afternoon and GanGan generally clock in at 1000 pages, or 2.5 inches thick, each. Although, if you read the magazines on the train, you can toss them in a trash bin at the entrance of the station.)

Now, the alternative is to stop buying the magazines and just focus on buying the collected volumes of the desired titles. This isn't quite so bad, since one volume of Soul Eater is only 400 yen ($3.75), and it only comes out every 3 months or so. But, some manga volumes are special releases and cost closer to $12 each. The problem is that if I get all the titles I want, it's 7 books every 3 months, and some of these titles require that I buy all the back issues in order to catch up (for Bleach that's 34 volumes, for Soul Eater that's 12 volumes to date). It still adds up after a while. Further, Geobreeders only comes out once a year, meaning that I have to be really patient if I want to buy only the collected volume in order to follow the story. If I'm not patient, it's back to buying the monthly Young King Ours.

And, this doesn't include the specialty monthly magazines like Animage, Newtype and Dragon that carry news of upcoming releases, or of ongoing TV anime shows. That's another 1000 or so yen each.

Don't take me wrong - I'm not complaining. It's just an observation.
(Note: as of today, $1 is around 110 yen; last week it was 107 yen.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Food in Japan - Coffee

When Americans think of Japan, two things generally come to mind - sushi and tea. (Plus ninja, anime, samurai and geisha, but those are subjects for another entry.) However, the Japanese people are voracious consumers of coffee as well. And, unlike Americans, the Japanese are willing to pay more money for higher quality coffee, In fact, the majority of the world's best coffees tend to be bought up by Japan and Germany. Unfortunately, the Japanese people themselves don't always know what they're drinking, so something sold for top dollar as Jamaican Blue Mountain may actually be a lower quality bean. This blog entry is a little peek at the coffee products available in Japan.

Canned Coffees:

Canned coffee is ubiquitous in Japan. It can be found in vending machines on train platforms and in the middle of the block on busy streets, in convenience stores, grocery stores and kiosks. There are about 4 main brands, including Georgia and Boss, with lots of smaller one-offs. Flavors can be black, black with sweetener, unsweetened with cream and sweetened with cream. While the cans may claim to be espresso, or cafe latte, etc., it's really a dark roast drip coffee with additives. Straight coffee comes in smaller cans, such as the Aromax "espresso" (above) which are about 6 ounces for 120 yen. "Milk coffee", which is mostly sweetened milk with coffee added, such as the "American Coffee" (above) are in 12 ounce cans. The vending machines offer cold coffee in the summer, and heated coffee in the winter. The black coffees pretty much all taste the same (charcoally and slightly bitter) and sales are based on brand recognition rather than a difference in taste.

Cup Coffee:
We're starting to see cold milk coffee sold in plastic cups with a straw showing up in the U.S. This kind of coffee, 6-8 ounces for 120 yen, has been available in grocery and convenience stores in Japan for years. Starbucks has become popular in the U.S. with its glass bottle coffees, but it hasn't picked up in Japan, largely because of the issues in recycling glass.

Large Bottled Coffee:

Bottled coffee is mostly available in grocery stores, and costs about 180 yen for 1 liter. This stuff comes in large plastic soda bottles, and is generally served cold. It can either be black or with milk, and be unsweetened, slightly sweet, or heavily sweetened. Nescafe is a big name in this market, as is Blendy. Bottled coffee is great if you want something cold to drink over the course of the day and don't want to make your own ice coffee.

Coffee Jelly:

This is one of my favorite snacks in Japan. It's sweetened coffee-flavored jello, packaged with a small serving of cream. Coffee jelly is sold in grocery stores in packs of 3, and in convenience stores in individual servings. It does taste like coffee, and can be called "jello for adults". Coffee jelly is also available as an upscale desert in some coffee shops and restaurants.

Coffee Beans:
The Japanese will make their own hot drip coffee at home, but it's not as popular as hot tea. Packages of ground coffee are mostly available at grocery stores, some coffee shop chains and convenience stores. Buying whole bean is not that common.

Single Serving Packs:
This is where the Japanese proclivity towards convenience runs afoul with its desire for simplicity. Doutor and one or two other companies offer single serving hot drip coffee packs. In Doutor's case, you get 3 or so packets a little bigger than a packet for a tea bag. Inside is a pre-measured amount of coffee sitting in its own drip filter. You open up the packet to create 4 legs that sit on the top of the coffee cup and then you pour hot water into the filter section with the coffee. The execution is not as clean as the concept, since you have to spend a couple of minutes pouring the water to get an even flavor, and the cardboard filter has a tendency to keel over after getting wet. The final coffee can be watery and you only get 4-6 ounces for all your effort. But it's still a fun package to play with.

Coffee Shops:

There are several main coffee shop chains in Japan. Below are just some representative photos. Japanmanship has a more complete list.

Doutor is the big dominant chain, with shops *everywhere*. It sells its own line of bottle, single serve, and bean coffees. Drinks include hot and ice coffee and tea, lattes, espressos, and candybar drinks. Foods include pre-packaged sandwiches, snacks and hot dogs. It's a sit-down shop that unfortunately can get really smoky because of the poor ventilation (the smoking section is in the back of the shop). The hot coffee is stronger than what most Americans are familiar with, but not bitter.

Starbucks had a bumpy start when it first tried to break into the Japanese market, since it didn't understand its customers. However, by offering smaller servings and a wider variety of fruit smoothies and pastries, Starbucks has become the trendy place to hang out with co-workers. (In the Soul Eater manga, some of the characters drink "Death Bucks" coffee). The shop shown here is in Shinjuku, just outside the west exit of the Shinjuku train station.

Doutor's attempt to create a Starbucks knock-off. I haven't tried the coffee here yet. This location was in Nakano, Tokyo, in the Broadway building, on the way to the Mandarake book shops.

This is Sakakoshi, a small "coffee lounge" in the Broadway building in Nakano, near one of the Mandarake shops. Little "mom and pop" coffee shops still manage to hang on in the face of the big corporate chains, and can be found slightly off the beaten path. Sakakoshi features straight coffee and pastries, and big comfy pillows on its padded chairs. This is a place to come kill a few hours talking with friends. It was mostly occupied by people in their 70's when I went there.

Americans' taste for coffee was largely formed in the later 1940's and 50's, when companies like Folger's marketed their ground coffee as being reusable, in that you could stretch your food budget by making several pots of coffee from one serving of grounds. The result is that Americans grew up thinking that weak, bitter coffee was the norm. Although, this was also true during WW II, when American servicemen stationed in Italy complained that espresso was too strong for them. The Italians reacted by creating the "Americano" - an espresso diluted with hot water (currently found on the Starbucks menu as a regular drink item). What this means in Japan is that our reputation has followed us. Ordering a "hot" in Japan will get you a small cup of strong hot coffee. Asking for an "American" will get you a larger cup of weaker coffee.

I'm going to stop now and get myself a tall, cold glass of Nescafe "Premium Blend" bottled coffee, black, 40% sweetened. Ahh, it's like living in coffee heaven.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Misc. - USPS, newspaper and sunscreen

(Tamagawa, looking from Noborito)

In my Aug. 14 entry I wrote about the problems I was having with the U.S. post office in getting a 5 pound box mailed to me from Austin to Japan. I just want to say here that I finally got the box. It was delivered on Aug. 17, so it did arrive within the promised 3-5 day window. HOWEVER, it was delivered to the apartment on a *Sunday*. Yes, the Japanese post office delivers packages on Sundays! In your face, USPS! (j/k).

Lately, I've been walking in the mornings to get the Japan Times. Now, this may not seem like such a big deal - many people walk to the nearest paper box to get their papers. However, in my case, the nearest place is 2 miles away. I could get the paper delivered directly to the apartment, but my wife wants me to go outside for it for the exercise. Now, the JT is not readily carried in all convenience stores or train station kiosks. In fact, the only place that has it in my area is a kiosk in Noborito, one train stop away from me. I had been riding the train to get to Noborito and back, but it's 130 yen each way (about $1.21 US) and the paper itself is 180 yen ($1.68). So, I'm paying $4.10 per day for a $1.68 paper. The problem is, the kiosk is inside the Noborito train station, and I have to pay at least 130 yen to get past the ticket gates, so I might as well ride the train to get it. Fortunately, a few days ago, I found a second kiosk that also carries the JT, and it's outside the ticket gates (it's actually in front of a connecting train line ticket gate). Meaning that I can walk to and from Noborito, claim that I'm doing it for the exercise, and end up saving myself 1820 yen ($17) per week at the same time by not riding the train (which is the real point). The drawback is that it takes me an hour to make the round trip, and I'd rather spend that 1 hour on my job hunt (which I just started, finally). So now, I'm looking at getting a bicycle to speed things up a bit...

One drawback to spending 1 hour outside in Tokyo is that I'm getting sunburned. Apparently, the sunlight is getting reflected off my glasses, increasing the exposure that my nose receives. This was also a problem when I was riding bike in Austin, and I'd trained myself to apply sunscreen whenever I was going to go riding. The last thing I need if I ever get a job interview is a blistered nose, so my next task this week was to go get sunscreen for myself. I walked over to the corner drug store 3 minutes away from the apartment and asked the clerk where the sunscreen was. She takes me over to the women's makeup section and points to some little tubes marked "sunscreen". They're either SPF 25 or SPF 50. I get the strongest one, in a 60 ml bottle, and it comes to $25. And, when I use it, it flows out with the consistency of water. A day later, my wife and I go back to the store and we try to see if there's anything better and cheaper. Turns out that sunscreen is marketed in Japan as a beauty product for women who want to keep their skin from turning darker. There is no alternative sunscreen product for men. By making sunscreen a beauty product, it allows the manufacturers to charge more for smaller bottles of a watery liquid that they place in fancier packages.

I think that in the future, I'll just ask my family to ship me a tube of Bullfrog as a Christmas present. Assuming that the USPS doesn't lose it along the way...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Obon Yasumi, Part 2 - Horror Stories

As mentioned in part 1, horror stories played a big part in Japanese Summer traditions, and since Obon occurs during the height of the Summer, Obon and telling horror tales are pretty much linked together in a lot of today's manga. Originally, the idea was to find ways of cooling down, or at least being distracted from the heat. And, if a spooky story made the hairs on your arms or the back of your neck stand up, you at least had the illusion of feeling cooler.

Traditionally, Japanese horror stories revolved around the "eerie", being more atmospheric and less gory than western stories. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was a Greek whose family moved to Ireland when he as 2, and he moved to Ohio when he was 19. He became a newspaper reporter, ran into various problems, and was commissioned to report from Japan in 1890. Once here, he collected various folk tales that were then published in 1903 under the title "Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things" (and is still in print). The first 80% of the book consists of short ghost stories. The remaining part contains 3 sets of observations on ghost stories that focus on insects. A few of the stories were used as the basis of the movie "Kwaidan" (1965). Sample stories include the woman with no face, and the rubber-necked woman who eats lamp oil. These tales are considered scary because the characters are "weird". Other stories include a man falling asleep, dreaming that he'd married a princess, then waking up to discover that he was laying on an ant hill, and the "princess" was really the queen ant. For the Japanese, the scary part comes from the characters not being "normal".

Hayao Miyazaki comments on ghosts and the weakening effects of their ability to scare people in his movie "Ponpoko". The tanuki (raccoon tricksters) use their powers to create illusions of traditional ghosts, including the rubber-neck woman and the woman with no face, but following the horrors of WW II and the glories of modern technology, the old stories just don't work like they used to.

More recently, Japanese ghost stories have gone the route of western horror, adding more murder and dismemberment to the stories. But, the horror is still more atmospheric and the violence is kept off screen to be left to the viewer's imagination. Examples include "Ringu" and "The Grudge". A featured modern Japanese horror teller is Junji Ito, whose manga "Gyo" and "Uzumaki" have been brought to the U.S. by Viz. Junji combines weird horror and twisted deaths with a creepy art style. "Gyo" especially is not a manga for kids (at least not U.S. kids; Japanese kids have been reading these stories just fine, thank you).

I haven't seen as many ghost stories on TV this Summer as in the past, but this may be in part due to the fact that the Beijing Olympics have been running all through Obon. Some of the TV channels have been dominated by coverage of the games.

Funny enough, right after I posted this entry, I discovered an article in today's Japan Times paper about a priest in Fukushima who exhibited his collection of old scrolls of ghost paintings for the last day of Obon.

So, the next time you open up your electric bill and are horrified at how much it costs to run your air conditioner, just remember how much fun you had telling stories around the campfire as a kid, and hope that the tingling at the back of your neck doesn't mean that someone is hiding in the shadows behind you, waiting to leap out...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Obon Yasumi, Part 1 - Obon

A lot has been written about Obon on other sites, so I won't waste space repeating that here. Well, maybe a little. Obon is a 3-day Japanese Buddhist custom dedicated to honoring one's ancestors. For the most part, modern Japanese people treat it as a 5-day holiday for returning back to one's home town and visiting family. It may also include visiting the family grave to clean it and pay respects. Obon occurs at the height of the Summer heat, so there are several traditions that are followed to try to cool down, such as shooting fireworks, wearing yukata (a light cotton robe, which is actually heavier and hotter than just shorts and a t-shirt) and telling ghost stories. Since, there is a belief that one's ancestors return to visit the family altar, ghost stories are particularly fitting during this period (if the ghost story is really scary, the hair on your arms and neck stand up, making you feel cooler).

Generally, Obon is one of the two biggest vacation periods in Japan, the other being Golden Week during the Winter, and this is when the trains and airports get the most crowded with travelers (although I haven't seen much difference on the trains where I am). Some of the local temples offer small festival gatherings (like the one I mentioned in my blog a few days ago) with dancing, music, and food and toy stalls. Otherwise, the amount of vacationing and participation varies from family to family.

Unlike big holidays in the U.S., such as Christmas, Easter, July 4 and Thanksgiving, large companies and government offices don't close. I went in on Monday to get my alien registration card, and the municipal office was just as busy as at any other time. However, small family owned and operated stores, such as dry cleaners and certain salons and restaurants, will close for the entire week as the family returns to their home in the countryside.

According to the wikipedia entry, Obon ends with the floating of paper lanterns down a river. I saw a news story on TV showing a group of people doing this 2-3 days ago, but it's not something I witnessed first hand near where I live. So, I don't know if Obon is already done in my part of Tokyo or not. There is going to be a major fireworks display in the Kawasaki area, but I have to figure what day it's on (it will be after Obon has finished, though).

The telling of ghost stories is worth having a blog entry all its own.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sending packages to Japan

There was a time when, if you wanted to ship books from the U.S. to Japan, you could just go to the post office, pay a few dollars for "book rate", and they'd throw the books into a sack and ship the sack by surface mail. In fact, there was a time when you could ship *anything* by surface mail - it would take 4-6 weeks for the package to arrive, but the postage was maybe 25% of the air mail cost. No more.

Back around March, the U.S. post office discontinued international surface mail (where your package would be placed on a ship for going overseas), and book rate mail. Given the difference in prices, it's not hard to understand why they'd stop offering the cheaper methods. Presumably the customer should be happy to get their package to the destination in 3-5 days instead of 4-6 weeks, but speed isn't always the most important thing...

My wife wanted me to ship 5 medium-sized boxes of used textbooks to her, and she wanted the books to arrive after I did. Because I would be visiting family for 2 weeks before flying to Japan, it made sense to use surface mail, both because it was slower and cheaper. However, when I went to the post office, not only was I told that surface mail didn't exist anymore, but that it would cost me $300 per 40-pound box for 3-5 day air mail. Yeah, right. So I went to UPS, where I was told that they don't offer surface mail for anything under 500 pounds, but they could charge me as little as $200 per box. FedEx was the same. That's when I discovered that Nippon Express has a small office in Austin, TX, and they could ship all 5 boxes for $400 total using an air mail service called "Pelican Pack". They promised to hold onto the boxes for 2 weeks before shipping them, but the boxes still arrived 1 full week before I did. Fortunately, my wife could handle unboxing all of the books without my help, and I still ended up saving $1100 over what the post office wanted to charge me, and $600 over UPS's rate.

But, I still had one more box I wanted to send - this one about 5 pounds, containing some hair coloring, and about 12 DVDs. The U.S. post office requires a customs declaration form to be filled out for international packages (not envelopes), and there are two kinds of forms depending on the size and weight of the box. A smaller green and white form for anything under 1 pound, and a larger white form for everything above that. Regardless of the form used, part of the form is attached to the package, and the form has a tracking number on it. I'd shipped boxes to Japan before, so I knew I needed the larger white form, and I had it pre-filled out before going to the post office. I give the package and form to the post office guy, pay my $80 for a 5-pound box going 3-5 day air mail (the only option available anymore), and he tells me everything is taken care of as I head out the door.

3 weeks later, the package still hasn't arrived in Japan when I finally get here. Checking the customs form tracking number online, I'm told that the package was delivered and signed for already. But, it was signed for on the date I shipped it, and received at the post office I sent it from. So that was useless. I send an e-mail to the post office asking them for help, and they tell me that they can't track international packages. So, I'm wondering why they have tracking numbers on the forms. And why they can't tell me whether the package is still in the U.S. or not. Anyway, I'm figuring that the U.S. post office lost the package, and I'm now out the $80 for shipping and the cost of the stuff in the box. But, the box was not irreplaceable, so I can always try having the hair coloring products for my wife repurchased and shipped again (the DVDs would be a write-off, though).

Suddenly, 6 weeks after I gave the package to the post office, it shows up at my U.S. forwarding address. One of my relatives tells me that they got the box. When I'd filled out the customs form, in the part where it asks what to do if the package is undeliverable, I'd checked "return to sender". So, the package went back to my old address, had a forwarding label stamped on it, and then sent to my relative's house. My relative then asks their post office what the problem was, and it turns out that the Austin post office never actually attached the required part of the customs form *to the package*. Sigh. Anyway, since I'd already paid the postage, the new post office just asked for a new customs form to be filled out. I'm told that my relative watched the form get attached to the package before it was put on the cart. So, maybe this time I'll get the 3-5 day air mail package in 3-5 days.

Anyway, the point is that the U.S. post office is now being run as a for-profit agency, and they ditched the cheaper methods of shipping packages overseas. Meaning that sending a package to Japan is no longer as easy and inexpensive as it used to be. Further, UPS and FedEx went the same route. Be forewarned.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Manga Commentary: Cat Street

This time, I'm not going to review a manga so much as I am going to use it as a starting point for a commentary on an aspect of life in Japan.

(Manga cover, from the wikipedia entry)

"Cat Street", by Kamio Youko, Grade B+
Keito Aoyama is a former child actress who froze on stage one night and saw her career and life go down the tubes from that moment on. About 8 years later, she encounters a former soccer star who had a similar meltdown, and is introduced to a "free school" - a school without classrooms or boundaries. In this school, surrounded by other misfits, she slowly learns how to deal with normal society again.

This is a shojo manga, so the art style is light and feathery, and everyone's emotions are overblown. The character designs are clean and attractive, and the artist can consistently draw the same character in a variety of poses. The story is pure high school drama, and there's very little that's actually original here. So, normally I wouldn't pay "Cat Street" further attention. It's the combination of characters, and how they react and interact that causes me to come back every so often to see how the story is progressing. (Even so, I did skip 8 chapters in the middle of the series just to speed things up a bit.)

One of the characters in "Cat Street" is Momiji, a "goth loli" cosplayer. Momiji can't stand wearing the same uniform day after day, so she escapes to the free school, and focuses on designing and sewing her own outfits. Momiji is in love with a boy at her old high school, and feels that if she puts her heart into designing a specific outfit, then she can have the courage to voice her feelings to him, and he can either accept or reject her for what she is. Unfortunately, when she finally gets to the point of telling him that she likes him, the boy intentionally humiliates her in front of all his friends because she dresses so funny, and she gets pushed into a fountain as a final cap to the degradation she receives. Of course, Momiji is crushed, and decides to never sew anything again.

(Goth Loli example, from wikipedia)

Manga, like TV, tends to amplify and exaggerate whatever it focuses on. And, one of the most common things is to focus on social misfits. Japanese society favors fitting in with a group, to the point where everyone in the group shares the same interests and opinions. The greatest fear is of embarrassing yourself in front of your friends. This is never more true than in a high school where the students are expected to dress and act alike. The real question is, "just how harshly will a specific "in-group" treat someone that dresses or acts differently?" That is, how realistic is Momiji's treatment by her former classmates simply because she likes dressing as a goth loli all the time?

It's an easy question to ask given the wide variety of costumes and fashion styles found in Tokyo and other large cities. The truth is that any unusual dress or hairstyle gets accepted and dismissed as "fashion". So, a mohawk, facial piercings and torn clothes, which would get a street punk mugged if he lived in small-town Iowa, is simply shrugged off in Japan. Momiji's goth loli outfit attracts attention in Japan, mainly because it is eye-catching, but it's not enough to get her kicked out of the in-group. On the other hand, there is a dress code that school students are forced to follow, and Momiji wouldn't be allowed onto the school grounds dressed like that. So, she may face some resistance from classmates who do comply with the dress code. Then again, if the free school is located in the country side, things become a little different because there are fewer places you can go to hang out with others that think and feel like you do. Unusual behavior tends to be less widely accepted in rural areas.

So, is Momiji's treatment at the hands of her former classmates a typical reaction to "outsiders"? No. The boy Momiji has a crush on is a jerk, plain and simple, and the friends he hangs out with enjoy watching him humiliate people. Dressing like a goth loli or a vampire may get you some stares and raised eyebrows, but that's about it. The drama in "Cat Street" is pretty much overblown, as happens in most manga. Unfortunately, bullying behavior by jerks is common throughout all societies and cultures, and that's what we're seeing in "Cat Street".

If Momiji really wants to fit in, all she has to do is visit Akihabara, or Harajuku - the teen fashion capital of the world. There are whole shops dedicated to the goth loli look there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie Review: Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

(Movie poster from Studio Gibli)

Title: "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea": Rating: B+

I just saw Miyazaki Hayao's latest theatrical release, "Gake no ue no ponyo" (or, Ponyo on the cliff by the sea). It was at the Marui theaters in Shinjuku. Marui is a large department store chain and the Shinjuku location has 13 or so medium-sized theaters from floors 9 to 12 of the store. It's not exactly a great setup, because each lobby can only hold 200 or so people at a time, the elevators run slow for bringing people up and down, and the only alternative to the elevators is a very narrow escalator. The theaters themselves can hold 400 or so people each, so getting in and out of a packed theater takes a lot of time. Of course, the lobby and theaters are very clean, and everything is expensive ($12 per ticket, $4 for a 16 ounce soda, $5 for a small popcorn.) Reviews for other movies (now showing and upcoming) included "Sky Crawlers" and "Detroit Metal City".

*** Spoilers ***

!!! Be Warned that the content of the movie will be discussed here !!!
!!! You have been warned !!!

This is a Miyazaki movie, so you know what the character designs are going to look like, and that the animation is going to be top-notch. In "Ponyo", Miyazaki does not disappoint. There's a lot of activity in each scene, and the movement is consistently fluid, the scenes vibrant with color. Each character stands apart from the others - there's no problem remembering who everyone is. There are two set pieces (a building tsunami and thousands of fish swarming around, and a dredger clearing trash from the sea floor) that you know must have taken months just to plan. And, the closing credits song is the one with the hook that gets viewers humming it as they leave the theater.

A couple of years ago, there were rumors that Miyazaki had quit making movies, so there was a vast sigh of relief and high expectations when "Ponyo" was announced. The media blitz has been especially intense, even 4 weeks after the initial premiere. And, the combined anticipation and advertising may be what's behind the ultimate lack of ticket sales now.

The story is based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid". Ponyo's father is a former human that married the goddess of the ocean, and is now busy returning the life to the ocean to help it recover from the damage caused by human pollution and over-fishing. He uses urns of a magic liquid (we're not told what it is) for this task. Along the way, a small goldfish escapes from home and lets herself fall asleep while drifting on the currents on the back of a jellyfish. She runs afoul of a dredger and gets trapped in a mason jar. She's rescued by Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy that lives on a cliff house overlooking the bay. By being taken out of the water, Ponyo upsets the balance of the world, and the sea turns choppy. Her father (the former human) captures her and returns her to the ocean. Ponyo is now enamored with the human world and uses her father's magic to turn human. She and her thousands of little goldfish sisters then combine forces to get Ponyo back on shore. Unfortunately, the balance is now completely thrown off and the towns get flooded, satellites fall from orbit and the moon starts inching closer to the Earth. Ponyo's mother gets involved and urges her husband to hold off and let the relationship between Ponyo and Sosuke play itself out.

Despite the great animation, "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" fails to grab the audience like earlier Miyazaki films did. Maybe it's because of the high expectations, or maybe the media blitz. But, most of the film's music is background filler, with only the closing song having any real viewer appeal. The story is just too simple, although it will definitely hold the attention of younger viewers. There are places in the film where the drama and suspense could have been built up more in order to suck in the viewer, but that failed to happen for me, at least. Naturally, a lot of the audience members loved the movie, but it's not the box office draw that Mononoke was.

Miyazaki turned 67 this year, and "Ponyo" is probably his last film. It's still a very good movie, and he is stepping off stage on a high note. I give "Ponyo" a "B+" and recommend that you see it on the big screen.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Manga Reviews: Soul Eater

(Soul Eater manga cover, from Wikipedia)

The Soul Eater anime airs on Mondays, at 6:00 PM. A couple of weeks ago, when I finally had control of the TV, I started watching all the anime I could in order to determine which ones I thought were worth watching, and which ones weren't. The Soul Eater episode I caught at that time was one of the stupid filler shows that wasn't taken directly from the manga (one of the minor characters chases after Excalibur, and finds out why the legendary sword still hasn't been claimed by anyone). I was completely unimpressed. However, the following week had the heroes under attack by some cute, but deadly witches, and that piqued my interest enough that I decided to pick up the first volume of the manga.

Initially, Soul Eater starts out as an adolescent boy's fantasy wish-fulfillment comedy with the main characters using weapons to beat up monsters. Nothing really new or novel, except that in this story, the main heroine is a young girl that wields a wicked-looking scythe, and the main hero *is* the scythe. Over time, the storyline settles down into a good-guys-verus-bad- guys-trying-to-take- over-the-world scenario. Except that details of the world takeover plot unfold slowly and you can't guess exactly how things are going to play out in advance.

The story takes place in the world of the shinigami - the gods of death. The "good guys" are largely kids going to shinigami technical school to improve their skills. The weapons have 2 forms - a human and a weapon form - and they partner up with a human wielder. The job of the human wielder is to get the souls of 99 bad humans and one bad witch, to allow the weapon to power up to "Death Scythe" level. The "Death Scythe" weapon then gets handed over to the head of the school - Shinigami-sama himself. So, the "bad guys" are either human criminals, or witches using their magic against humans. And, since the witches are in direct danger from the hunters, they band up to protect themselves.

The primary characters are:
Maka: A young girl. Smart, capable, and a vicious fighter.
Soul Eater: Maka's scythe (male). Voracious, impetuous, and "cool".
Black Star: A young boy. Dumb, impetuous, and driven to be #1.
Tsukabi: Black Star's ninja weapon set (female). Shy, intelligent, strong.
Death the Kid: A young boy. Son of Shinigami-sama, a "symmetry" freak.
Liz and Patty: Kid's pair of pistols (both female). Ex-street rats.
Shinigami-sama: Head of the Shinigami Technical School.
Medusa: A witch. Aligned with snakes. Pretty, but devious.
Erika: A young witch. Aligned with frogs. Cute, but hapless.

There are a lot of other characters too, but it's easier to just point you to the wikipedia cast list.

The artwork is inconsistent. The backgrounds are detailed and highly original, but the character designs tend to vary somewhat from panel to panel. The characters are slightly simplified and cartoony, but can get extremely detailed and "intense" during battle scenes. There's a lot of goofball humor (such as when Maka uses "Maka Chop" on her womanizing father), but there's a serious element as well (such as when someone faces death, or loses their mind). The story takes on lots of twists and turns as one of the witches (Medusa) infiltrates the school and tries to free an imprisoned demon. Medusa is especially expressive as she switches between innocent teacher and vicious snake. The fight scenes are really well-drawn, and the fighters look like they're really focused on trying to kill each other (most fights end with someone dying).

I'm now up to volume 7, and 12 volumes are now out. The series is on-going in Monthly Shonen Gan-Gan. I like this series a lot, and recommend it highly. It is aimed at boys, so it does have a lot of "reader service", if that is an important factor for you.

Rating: A.

Soul Eater Scans

Sunday, August 10, 2008


I'm trying to not sound like I'm complaining here, but that's an impression that's going to be hard to avoid.

I need 8 hours of sleep a night, so when I go to bed, I plan on not waking up until 8 hours later. That's not an easy task here in Tokyo. First, during the Summer now, the sun comes up at 4:30 AM (sets at about 7:00 PM), filling the apartment with light. Second, the apartment is about 100 feet from the train station (less than half a block). At about 6:00 AM, the trains start running, and when a train approaches the station, the barrier arms come down to block off the street and the "clang clang" arm sounds. This alarm can be heard from up to half a mile away and lasts for 2 minutes per train. The trains arrive about every 7 minutes. The trains themselves aren't very noisy - it's just a "chunk-chunk" sound as the wheel sets pass from one rail to the next.

The really annoying noise is that from politician-wannabes. It is a common and accepted practice for politicians and potential opponents to hire a small van to drive around the city, playing announcements from PA speakers mounted on top of the van. The announcements are generally from what's called "nightingales" - professional campaign speakers (always women) hired for their vocal appeal to read a script for that candidate. This phenomenon is shown in the movie "Campaign". Anyway, the vans have a tendency to park in front of the train station and start blaring out some political speech from 6:00 AM to 7:00 AM. What's almost funny about this is that the speeches always start out with "We're sorry for disturbing you..."

Lastly, for the previous two days, Japanese old-style dance music has been playing all day, from about 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Last night, I finally decided to find out why. Following the music, I walked about 6 blocks to a tight little residential area. I found a "tera" (a small temple) mixed in with the houses (it was too dark to take pictures; I'll do that next time). The front of the temple is guarded by 2 kitsune (fox) statues, and is fronted by a small dirt plaza. Just for this weekend, the plaza was lined with food and game stalls. Foods consisted of takoyaki, cotton candy, kakigori (shaved ice), yakisoba and ame dama. The game stalls were "toss the rings", "shoot the dolls" and "scoop up the fish".

Turns out that this weekend marked the start of Obon Yasumi - a one-week vacation period for the country. To mark this holiday, the local Buddhist temple had hosted a small local festival. The music was traditional dance music and about 20-30 people were dancing when I arrived, with another 50 standing around watching or eating. About 10 of the men, and half of the women were wearing yukata. Fortunately, the evening air had cooled down a bit, so people weren't overheating as much. It was a fun little gathering, and next time I hear this music, I'll know better and will go check it out while it's light enough to take photos.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Shopping day in Nakano

Well, not strictly "shopping"...

Back in 1994 when I first lived in Tokyo, my friend Hitoshi had shown me a number of places to visit for buying anime cels and old manga. The first set of shops had been in Ikebukuro (which I already documented in my "Ikebukuro Shopping Guide"), and the second set was in Nakano. I wanted to put together a "Nakano Shopping Guide", so I rode the trains in to Shinuku in order to take pictures of the Nakano area, and to verify that the shops were still there. Unfortunately, I don't have much space in the apartment for storing toys and cels and stuff, so I stuck strictly to just window shopping. But, I did get some pictures, anyway.

Last winter when Altimitcorp had their advertising site for the last two .Hack//G.U. games, there was at least one woman that was *really* good at making anime-related dolls. And, one of the shops in Nakano sells doll-making supplies. The thought occurred that I could try doing something like that myself. Except that the base prices for a 12" tall doll started at $600, and didn't include clothing or accessories. So I put that thought out of my head pretty fast. I did get one picture of the shop, though, before the clerk chased me away saying "no photos!"

Technically, I shouldn't have gone in to Nakano (130 yen + 240 yen + 150 yen = 520 yen = $5 for train tickets one way), and instead should have saved my money and stayed at home and studied Japanese language structure. But, I stumbled across an ad for a coffee shop run by a former winner of the World Barista Competition, and the place supposedly roasts its own beans. And, the shop is located in Shinjuku, just outside the west exit. So I decided that I'd combine both Nakano and coffee to justify the expedition yesterday. After asking for directions, I finally found the building the shop is in. The shop itself is pretty upscale, with wooden paneling on the walls, tables and booths. Very fancy deserts (small slices of puddings and cakes for $4 to $6). It was right around noon, and the shop had 30 or so customers. I ordered a house blend drip coffee, and ended up in a war of wills with the clerk. For about a minute, we fought over my order. The clerk was obviously thinking "what is wrong with you idiot? This is a set lunch of coffee and a panini sandwich. Which kind of filling do you want for the panini?" And I'm trying to find the words to say "look, quit trying to sell me something I don't want for $5 extra, and just give me my coffee." The clerk finally won. The "panini" turned out to just be a standard chicken sandwich with triangularly cut grilled toast. Not that bad, and I was hungry. The coffee was really good - strong and tasty. But, I only got 4 ounces of coffee for $2, which wasn't nearly enough. Japanese coffee shops generally don't practice the "free refills" concept, so I was stuck with just having the small cup and then leaving. Bottom line - good coffee, but too expensive for what I wanted. I'll stick with Doutor (which has a shop 3 minutes' walk from my apartment).

Friday, August 8, 2008

2008 Beijing Summer Olympics

Well, the Summer Games have finally begun. I don't know about the Japanese newspapers, but the English papers (Japan Times, Asahi and Yomiouri)had tended to be critical of China leading up to yesterday. Most of the articles were about the poor air quality in Beijing, whether athletes were going to wear face masks, the assault on two Japanese reporters by Chinese police following the bomb attack that killed several Chinese police earlier in the week, and the cover up by the Japanese government (supposedly at the request of the Chinese) of the gyoza poisonings that occurred in China prior to the G8 summit (tainted gyoza from China was found in Japan last December and January, but the Chinese government claimed that the poison must have been introduced later in the production chain in Japan; when China revealed 1 month ago that the poison was found in China in gyoza from the same manufacturer, it pointed the finger directly at China as the source. But, the Japanese government sat on the information until China itself revealed it). As for TV, there have been quite a few programs in the last couple of weeks focusing on Japan's performances in past Games, as well as highlighting Japanese athletes scheduled to compete this year. (Then again, we're now in the middle of high school baseball season, so most of the TV sports coverage hasn't been on the Summer Games.)

Things changed with the broadcast of the opening ceremonies last night. NHK had a talk show format for it's in-studio commentators 1 hour before the ceremonies started, and they wasted most of the time on idle chatter. When the ceremonies started, they switched to the live hosts, and the cameras focused mainly on the dancers (when there were any), rather than any action occurring directly in the middle of the stadium (.e. - when the kids were painting on the floor). THE predominate word for the evening was "sugoi" ("incredible"), which was used a LOT. Immediately followed "nan dake" ("what are they doing now?"). The live hosts seemed to have trouble telling in advance what the next part of the ceremonies was about. I was especially amused when, during the moving boxes skit when the boxes spelled out some kanji, that the Japanese commentators couldn't figure out what the kanji was.

Overall, the Japanese take on the Summer Games opening ceremony was one of unadulterated awe. There was no negative element that I could sense. Unfortunately, the next part was the introduction of the athletes from each country, and the Japanese TV crews decided to broadcast the entire thing, with the live hosts either commenting only on some country's costumes, or whether a particular athlete was especially "genki" (mugging in front of the crowd). I eventually turned the TV off and went to check e-mail, but I suspect that NHK aired all 200+ countries.

One final comment: The Japanese TV commentators consistently refer to Beijing by its older name "Peking". Kind of weird, seeing "Beijing" on the screen, but hearing it called something else. In any case, I expect that all of the NHK TV coverage is going to be on the Japanese athletes from here on out, which may be a good thing since U.S. TV almost never talks about competition from anyone not identified as "An American Super Star".

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tokyo TV anime schedule

Two topics today. First, I created another knol - this one featuring the schedule of ongoing TV anime in the Tokyo area. I tried adding in links to outside pages for each show (wikipedia entries when they existed, otherwise to the Japanese sites for the shows themselves), but the list is incomplete. I'm treating this as an ongoing project and will add to the schedule when I can. And, I'll accept any help in maintaining this knol that I can get.

Second, an entry in the "you only miss it when it's gone" category. The apartment building I'm living in had scheduled maintenance on its one and only elevator yesterday. This is a regular activity that occurs every few months, and was advertised in the lobby a week in advance. Of course, I forgot it was yesterday, and had to go out of the building in the middle of the day. When I returned, the elevator was still out of order, and I had to climb the 14 flights of stairs to get back home, while also carrying a bag of groceries. I need more exercise. Sigh.

(Eye lash parlor in Ikebukuro)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pitagora Switch

On the whole, Japanese TV falls into the following categories: Cooking shows; guest shows that evaluate cooking shows; game shows; talk shows; anime; samurai dramas; daily life dramas; kids' shows. The dramas tend to be simple, preachy and not have a lot of action. The game and talk shows are just silly (to the point of being physically abusive). The cooking and eating shows are fine for a while, but get tiresome if you can't eat the foods yourself (and it's guaranteed that every single person's reaction to every single dish will be "umai" or "oishii" - "delicious"). I've mentioned TV anime in other posts. There's also foreign shows like "Lilo and Stitch", "Heroes" and dramas from China and South Korea (mostly dubbed into Japanese), plus the various movies like "Blade" and "High Noon".

The children's shows could be likened to the stuff on PBS, where puppets, animated characters and silly humans sing, dance, and practice various words and phrases. But, there's a lot of emphasis on culture and history as well, where learning sketches include Noh, Kabuki and enka.

But, of all these shows, the one that I try to watch every morning is NHK's "Pitagora Switch", a little 5-minute segment within a larger 15-minute children's program on NHK-E at 8:10 AM. "Pitagora" is the Japanese pronunciation of "Pythagoras", creator of the Pythagorean theorem. Pitagora Switch teaches logic and mechanics through simple little sketches, including the opening and closing machines. The Switch machines are complex Rube Goldberg contraptions made out of common household items with the ultimate goal of spelling out the show's name. Other segments include Papa Switch (where a child controls his father using a switch box to pantomime words starting with a specific letter); hashitte moji (where runners on a playing field sprint out the shapes of hiragana words; every 1/2 second the runner's position is freeze-framed to record his path and to make the word easier to make out); Framy ( an animated set of boxes combine to create a dog and to tell a simple story through the dog's antics; and Today's Robot (a short feature showing various unusual kinds of robots).

Finally, there is the algorithm march. In general, there are two versions of this exercise routine - the pump and inflate, and the guru-guru. Pump-and-inflate consists of about 8 moves, two of which include a pumping action followed by the arms rising, where the exercisers move forward a step with each action. The guru-guru is a 6-move thing with the exercisers standing in place, making guru-guru moves (where you spin your hands around each other). All marches are intended to work together with multiple people interacting, and are led by two Japanese comics. Every couple of days a new version of the march airs, with the other exercisers consisting either of ninja, Sony robots, sumo wrestlers, airline staff, firefighters, and even maiko (geisha-in-training). These exercises are hilarious, and have even gotten popular outside Japan (youtube has a video of 967 prisoners in a Filipino jail doing the longer march).

Links to youtube videos from the show:

Over 10 Switch Machines in one video
4 Algorithm Marches in one video
Algorithm March with Airline Staff
Algorithm March with the Kawasaki Frontales soccer team
Algorithm March with Prisoners

I wish I had a recorder so I could upload the latest marches that aren't on youtube yet.

Note: Pitagora Switch is available on DVD from

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Upcoming anime movies

(Car elevator - file from Photobucket)

One of the best parts of living in Japan is that you get to see the special interview shows that come on late at night occasionally (10 PM to 11 PM). Over the last 2 nights, there were two of these shows. There's nothing comparable in the U.S. It'd be like John Lasseter getting a full 90-minute special on ABC to show how "Wall-E" was made (and forget those stupid little "look behind the camera" spots Disney runs for movies like "Pirates of the Caribbean" - these interviews don't always show the director in a good light.) If you're lucky, whoever buys up the rights to Ponyo will include last night's interview on the DVD release.

Monday's 1-hour special was on Mamoru Oshii, director for such iconic movies as "Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer", "Angel's Egg", "Patlabor the Movie", and the "Ghost in the Shell" movie. Monday's interview was mostly a documentary of the making of Oshii's latest anime movie - "The Sky Crawlers", and it showed how Oshii controlled all aspects of the creative process, including working with George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to produce the sound track. "The Sky Crawlers" is based on a series of novels by Hiroshi Mori. It follows the exploits, both on the ground and in the air, of a group of young air force pilots - men and women - that engage in dog fight warfare. The movie contains some spectacular animation sequences, and a fair amount of individual drama. The animation quality looks excellent and I really want to see this one in the theaters. From what I could gather from the interview, Oshii found a personal message in "The Sky Crawlers"; before going into the production, he was feeling old (57) and useless. But, the importance placed on youth and life in a battle situation gave him an energy that he carried away from the film after he was done making it.

Summary: I think this is going to be a really good movie, at least on par with "Ghost in the Shell".

The second special was part of NHK's "The Professionals" series, which highlights notable figures in different professions. Last night's chapter was a 90-minute look at Hayao Miyazaki, with emphasis on the making of his new movie, "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea", but with a fair amount of biographical material, too. Miyaziki had it rough - his mother died young, he suffered depression as a child, and his first feature movie as a director ("Castle Cagliostro") bombed at the box office because it was released at the start of the SF anime boom (fans wanted to see "Galaxy Express 999" instead). Eventually, he persevered and reached initial theatrical success with "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind". "Ponyo" is a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen "The Little Mermaid" story. This time, Ponyo is a goldfish that gets washed up on the beach and rescued by a 5-year-old boy. Ponyo has the standard confrontation with her father that results in her running away and using magic to turn human. Unfortunately (unlike in the Disney version), Ponyo's transformation destabilizes the balance of the world and large-scale destruction starts sweeping the planet.

The part of the show that focuses on the making of Ponyo stays firmly on Miyazaki. While we do get to see some of the key staff, there's none of the standard studio statistics (i.e. - nothing about the size of the studio, the number of lead animators, or who was contracted to mix the sound track). Instead, we see Miyazaki's daily routine, and LOTS of footage of Miyazaki creating the layout drawings and cleaning up the animation pencil drawings. There's some drama when Miyazaki calls an animator to task for a clumsy drawing of a seagull in one scene, and the animator complains that he never wanted to do this kind of layout work. (We never get to see what happens to this animator, though.) As in all Japanese shows, there's a major disaster, and this time it's Miyazaki's inability to visualize how the final scene will work. Since he's the one that's creating the layouts that the rest of the team uses, and this is going to make or break the movie, everything is resting on his shoulders as the final production deadline approaches. Now, as to whether or not this was a real crisis, or just something manufactured for the TV special, I don't know. However, Miyazaki definitely felt the stress and became very short-tempered with everyone, including the cameraman filming him (shows that he can be human some times). When he does break through his writer's block, he returns to his normal cheerful self.

The animation quality for Ponyo is topnotch, and there are a couple set pieces that are absolutely eye popping. The movie is a tear-jerker, but seems to avoid being saccharine. No idea how the voices sound, and we were only treated to one song in the special, which isn't as catchy as the opening songs from Kiki or Totoro. But, prior to the special I was uninterested in seeing the movie because it looked too childish. Now, I'm hoping to get to watch it in the theaters soon.

Summary: Rumors swirled that Miyazaki had retired, and people were thrilled to hear that he was making Ponyo. At age 67, it's now believed that Ponyo will be the last movie he directs. And, it may be the perfect swan song for him.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ikebukuro Sightseeing

I apologize - I've hit my limit of 1 gig for photos. So this entry is just going to be text. I'm trying to set up an album on Photo Bucket. (Let me know if you can view the 5 photos I have there, or if you have problems with them. Thanks.)

Well, I spent part of my Sunday wandering around Ikebukuro, with the result being that I created a Knol shopping guide for the area. If you're not familiar with Knols, they're basically google's attempts at offering free webpages dedicated to specific subjects (knol = 1 unit of knowledge). The menuing system is difficult to figure out if you want to do anything remotely complex, but it's not bad for simple text-with-pictures pages.

According to the wikipedia entry, Tokyo is made up of 23 special wards, and 26 cities. So, Tokyo is a big place, and it's connected together by a web of train and subway lines. Most of the lines radiate outwards away from Tokyo station, but only one line forms a complete loop - the Yamanote line (or Yamanote sen). The Yamanote could be said to start in Shinagawa (being a circle, it has no real start), and it then connects Tokyo station to Yurakucho, Akihabara, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Yoyogi, Harajuku, Shibuya, Ebisu and Gotanda together. It takes 1 hour to ride the complete loop.
Yurakucho: Entry point to Ginza
Tokyo Station: Not much here, just a lot of connecting train lines
Akihabara: Electronics and maid cafes
Ueno: Ueno zoo, and a bunch of small shops around the station
Ikebukuro: Described below
Takadanobaba: An industrial commercial area I lived in during the 1990s
Shinjuku: A major commercial district, with electronics and entertainment
Yoyogi: Yoyogi Park
Harajuku: Trendy fashion center, free music site on Sundays (need to confirm)
Shibuya: Clothing stores, game arcades, young people's hangout
Ebisu: Home of Ebisu Brewery
Gotanda: Office park where I used to work in the 1990s

Ikebukuro is a big area, with housing, shops, offices, etc., that are kind of segregated apart. If you walk out the central east exit and continue east about 2 blocks, you get to the entrance of a shopping center. There's the Tokyu Hands department store, 10 or so game arcades, several movie theaters, a bunch of restaurants, and a lot of small specialty shops. The shopping center is about 3 blocks by 4 blocks (roughly) and butts up against the elevated freeway. On the other side of the freeway are the K-Books, Mandarake, and Animate stores (anime and manga), plus Sunshine City (SC). SC was an early attempt at making a self-contained "city-within-a-skyscraper". It contains restaurants, apartments, a department store, fitness center, parking lot, etc. From an aesthetic viewpoint, it received a lot of complaints. But, it's still standing and it is occupied, so it wasn't a complete failure. And, it makes for great landmark when you're trying to locate the Animate shop.

One of the main reasons for visiting Ikebukuro is because of the high density of anime and manga shops within a 5 minute walk of each other. K-Books has about 5 separate stores in the area, each carrying specific items (one store has doujinshii, another yaoi, and another boys manga). Animate is in a narrow building, but it occupies 5 or 6 floors. Mandarake is mostly a used book and action figures shop, but the location in Ikebukuro is pretty small (the Nakano location is bigger and more impressive). There's also a Manga no Mori, which is a manga and anime DVD and CD shop.

To me, the one shop here that is an example of "only in Japan" has nothing to do with anime or manga, but is still fun to visit. This is Neko Robi (I think this translates to Cat Lobby). Essentially, this is a 20' x 20' room where you can sit down and play with cats for $10 for 1 hour. There are about 10 cats, but when I went, it was hot outside and they all just wanted to lie there and sleep. Neko Robi also has a vending machine and you can drink all the ice coffee and soda you want for free. If you really need to get a cat fix, Neko Robi is the place to go.