Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘New products’ Category

Music made easy

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 2, 2012

MANY people wish they could play music like Beethoven or Jimi Hendrix, but few have the talent or the discipline to bring their chops to that level.

But the wild and crazy guys at Maywa Denki, the self-described “parallel-world electricians”, have solved that problem with the otamatone. Here’s the regular version (note the shape):

Here’s the jumbo version:

And here’s the bilingual website. Once upon a time, they were a subcontractor for Toshiba and Panasonic. Not any more!

Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Music, New products, Science and technology | Leave a Comment »

La vie en choco

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 16, 2012

THERE is an abundance of elegant and flavorful hors d’oervres and appetizers that make a perfect food companion for wine. In addition to the many varieties of cheese, one cannot fail to mention foie gras, caviar, spring rolls, vegetables with hummus, crab dab, artichoke and parmesan-filled wonton cups…

And Choco Pies!

Stay your condescending laughter, lest you contradict the opinions of the experts and professionals assembled by the Lotte Co. to celebrate their new Choco Pie product.

Lotte is a large multinational conglomerate with its business fingers in all sorts of pies. Named after the character Charlotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, the company was founded by Shin Kyeok-ho in Tokyo in 1947, and now has more than 60 business units. One of their enterprises is the production and sale of mass market confections, and the slogan of that unit is, “Sweetheart of your mouth”.

Their Choco Pie product hit the market 30 years ago next year, and it quickly became a popular snack. The company decided to create a new pie recipe and enhance their brand image for the anniversary. To promote the improved Choco Pie, they held a trial tasting yesterday in Tokyo for 30 people. The large group of 30 was divided into sub-groups of five people each by occupation, and included patissiers, sommeliers, and female college students.

The experts were unanimously complimentary of the new product’s “refined flavor”. Said the representative of the sommelier group:

“There is an aroma of fragrant cacao, a light, puff-like texture that melts in the mouth, and a body resembling a hidden flavor in the sweetness.”

If that wasn’t enough incentive to head over to the nearest convenience store, he added:

“It is suited for pourriture noble wines (literally noble rot, meaning wine made from grapes with a deliberately cultivated gray mould), or, for red wines, an Amarone or other sweet variety.”

All five sommeliers agreed the Choco Pies had become more delicious. While reports did not include the discriminating judgment of the female college students, the sommeliers’ opinion was seconded by actress Kawashima Naomi, whose husband is patissier Yoroizuka Toshihiko. That’s the epicurean couple in the photo above.

Ms. Kawashima is something of a wine expert, or at least she is reputed to be so. She has said in public that her body is made out of wine, and that wine flows in her blood. Here’s a photo of her getting a transfusion, or perhaps a transmutation.

She also vouched for Choco Pies:

“I think this absolutely would be suited to wine, particularly champagne.”

I’m not sure even Lotte expected what came next:

“I think it also has a fragrance that makes it a perfect match for grain shochu.”

Then again, she also likes cigars.

Sales of the downmarket delicacy began on 21 August, and to this point Lotte has enjoyed a 117% year-on-year increase in shipment value since its release. The company has also created and is selling special seasonal Choco Pies. A videomaker named Shitemita introduces one here, which is advertised as having a slightly bitter taste. Shitemita is impressed that it’s made with vanilla beans from Madagascar.

So am I, come to think of it.

Posted in Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products | Tagged: | 1 Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 8, 2012

CLICK on the Food category on the left sidebar and you’ll discover that the Japanese enjoy experimenting with different fruits and vegetables as substitutes for the standards in all sorts of dishes, including snack foods and beverages. One part of this post, for example, presents the strawberry sake made in Shimanto, Kochi.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the people outside of Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Yoshihara Hideo has created and is selling a craft beer made from strawberries. Mr. Yoshihara quit his day job at a company at the age of 55 and decided he wanted to spend his days growing the fruit. He chose the Natsuotome variety developed by the prefecture’s agricultural research institute that reaches maturity in the summer and fall. After studying strawberry cultivation on his own, he built two greenhouses to produce them seven years ago, and is now the only man in town growing Natsuotome.

One of the characteristics of that variety is a hint of acidity inside the sweetness, and Mr. Yoshihara thought they might be suited for a beer that would appeal to the feminine palate. Well, it’s technically a low-malt beer-like sparkling beverage, because it doesn’t conform to the legal requirements for beer. No matter what it’s called, the function is surely identical.

Plenty of people like it. He made 700 bottles for sale through a liquor store last year and unloaded them all. Now he plans to make 1,000 this year. The alcohol content is 5%, and each 330 ml bottle costs JPY 600. That’s close to double what a regular bottle of beer that size would sell for.

If you’re in Japan and the idea of strawberry beer has you salivating, call the Yoshidaya liquor store in Tochigi at 0288-54-0167, and they’ll probably find a way to get you some.

Some years ago, Kuwata Keisuke and the Southern All Starts had a radio hit with a song called Melody, in which the singer praises his “hot strawberry lady”. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which are the adjectives and which are the nouns in that title. A cold strawberry beer and a hot strawberry lady sound as if they’d be an excellent combination, don’t you think?

No SAS version on YouTube, but here’s the Southern Band doing it live in Okinawa.

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Nira kasutera

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

GARLIC chives, known as nira in Japanese, are used as an ingredient in dishes throughout East Asia. My wife grows them in a small plot outside the kitchen door and sometimes mixes them into scrambled eggs or miso soup.

There’s a story in her family of the plant’s rejuvenating properties. Her mother’s relatives were schoolteachers or farmers, and this comes from the farmers’ side. One of the chickens they kept grew so weak it seemed as if it would soon be giving up the poultry ghost. The woman of the house picked a bunch of nira from her plot and stuffed it down the chicken’s beak. An hour later it was cackling and running around as if nothing had been amiss.

Japanese food companies like to experiment with different combinations, and the 3S company in Shiriuchi-cho in Hokkaido prefers to use locally grown vegetables. The municipality has the largest nira production in the prefecture, so that makes it a natural choice for the company’s research labs.

Now they’ve come up with a new product that is a combination of garlic chives and castella, a sponge cake known locally as kasutera. The cake came to Japan through Nagasaki in the 16th century when it was brought by Portuguese merchants. Now a specialty of Nagasaki, it was a special treat during the Edo period because of the high price of sugar. (The sugar content is one reason I don’t eat it unless someone offers it to me.)

The combination of nira and kasutera doesn’t sound very appetizing, but the reports say it tastes better than it sounds. They pound the chives into a pulp first before mixing it with the batter. There’s a precedent for this type of product; there are already castella varieties on the market with green tea mixed in. If you’re ever up Shiriuchi-cho way, you can find a slab like the one shown above at local shops and hot springs for 700 yen.

Who knows? Maybe the sugar high will get you up and running until the rejuvenating properties of the garlic chives kick in.

That might be the problem with the Nira Kodomo (Nira Children) performing the “song” Hen na Atama. (Well, it’s either nira kasutera or hash brownies.) Hen means weird, and atama means head, so they won’t have any problems with truth in advertising.

A few days ago we had a video of a natto eating contest. Here’s a castella eating contest held in Nagasaki in May.

Posted in Food, New products | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Small beer and bigger government

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 23, 2012

“To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.”
— William Shakespeare, (Othello, ii.1)

AFTER the law governing the types of stores that were allowed to sell alcoholic beverages was amended in 1989, large discount stores wasted no time in stocking their shelves with booze. As a result, consumers became less interested in paying the suggested retail prices, which led to greater price competition. But taxes accounted for 46.5% of the price of beer, making it difficult to discount. Therefore, the large discounters started importing and selling cheaper beer from overseas. Japan’s brewers became alarmed.

The brewers set to work to create a product that could still be sold as something resembling beer, but which contained less than 67% malt. A beverage with that percentage of malt or higher was classified as beer for tax purposes. Their problem was to come up with something drinkable. Low-malt beer products were already available, but they had only a 5% market share despite their lower price.

In October 1994, Suntory launched sales of its Hops product. Containing 65% malt, the arrival of the new beverage marked the creation of the market for happoshu, a term that was officially translated as sparkling spirits. The term low-malt beer also works.

In May 1995, Sapporo began selling a product called Drafty that contained less than 25% malt, which placed it in the lowest tax category. The brewers kept beavering away to improve the taste of the products, and sales started rising. As a result, the government amended the law to tax happoshu at the same rate as beer if the malt content was at least 50%.

The new tax rate took effect in the fall of 1996. The brewers complained that it denigrated their product development efforts. But then Suntory developed a product with less than 25% malt in May 1996 to beat the new tax. They called it Super Hops.

The market for happoshu expanded further when industry leader Kirin began offering products. Asahi was the last holdout and refused to make any because they claimed it was ersatz beer. They changed their mind in 2001 when all their new real beer products developed in the interim fizzled.

These beverages accounted for 48.2% of the beer market in April 2003, up from a 37.2% share the previous year. The government raised their taxes by 10 yen a can in May. The producers’ response was two-fold. First, they shifted their emphasis from price to value, volume to quality, and market share to profit. Second, they stepped up development of the beer-like beverages with less than 25% malt content. The industry refers to these drinks as the “new sector”, but the mass media coined the phrase “third beers”.

They also started developing beer-like products with no malt at all, which are sometimes referred to as “fourth beers” and are classified as liqueurs. Some of those beverages are made with soy peptides or corn. One is made with green beans and sugar cane. They can’t legally be called beer, but the producers get around that by using words with beer connotations in their names. The first of these products was Sapporo’s Draft One in 2004.

As a result of the greater consumption of third beers and non-alcoholic beer, the market for happoshu started cratering in the late 2000s. Third beer outsold happoshu for the first time in 2008, and the market share of the latter fell to 15.4% in 2011. Asahi, Suntory, and Sapporo said they would cut back production of, but not eliminate, their happoshu products because customers had become loyal consumers of some brands.

The National Tax Agency raised the tax on third beers by 3.8 yen a can in 2006, while reducing it by 0.7 yen per can on regular beer to mollify the industry. The government also changed the laws governing the materials used in the development of these beverages to prevent the creation of new beer-like products using different ingredients.

Of course the industry as a group has been conducting market surveys of consumer preferences and product awareness. They put the results of one survey on line (in Japanese, in PDF files).

One question they asked of consumers was their reason for drinking certain products. Here are the primary responses, with multiple answers possible.

Real beer
It tastes good (73.0.%)
It makes me feel good (53.8%)

It’s cheap (73.8%)
It tastes good (36.8%)
The taste and quality have improved (25.8%)

Third beer
It’s cheap (84.4%)
It tastes good (39.4%)
It’s easy on the household budget (28.7%)

Further, 74% of the respondents didn’t know that the tax rate for happoshu was higher than that of other low-alcohol products apart from beer, such as pre-mixed cocktails and chuhai beverages. Broken down by sex, that was 80% of women and 67% of men, in a category primarily targeting women.

In fact, when asked to estimate the actual percentage of taxes on beer, happoshu, and third beer, respondents underestimated the rate by roughly 10 percentage points in all three categories.

Remember that Suntory was the first beer company to develop a happoshu beverage in 1994? By now you can already guess what they announced last week:

Suntory Holdings Ltd. plans to stop producing and selling happoshu low-malt quasi-beer, becoming the first major brewer to exit the happoshu market.

The firm finished producing its core happoshu product, “MD Golden Dry,” in June, and all of its happoshu products should disappear from stores by autumn…

Regarding Suntory’s shipments of beer and beer-like beverages in the first half of 2012, it sold 470,000 cases of happoshu, which is 40.4 percent down from the same period last year, and happoshu accounted for only 1.6 percent of shipping volume. One case is equivalent to twenty 633-liter bottles…

With the move, Suntory seems to be intensively allocating funds to its premium beer, including “The Premium Malt’s.

The information in this post confirms about a half-dozen basic laws of economics and handsomely validates the functioning of the paradigm that is the market.

It also demonstrates that the public sector is, as always, incapable of putting two and two together, and that their inability to add results in subtraction. In the quotation at the top of the post, the character Iago is referring to women. Nowadays, his observation is more applicable to the revenuers and G-men everywhere.

Kirin used everything but the kitchen sink to promote one of their ersatz beers. The song is performed by the Candies, three young women who appear briefly in a film clip at the end.

But Seto Asaka is more to the taste of the younger generation in this add for Super Hops.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, New products | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Letter bombs (23): Ingenuity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2012

READERS e-mailed links to two articles, both of which are Japan-related and are based on the theme of inspiration and ingenuity.

The first comes from Dan Bloom in Taiwan:

A pair of twins has invented a timesaving device for housewives in rain-prone areas as well as people on the road — a portable electric “fan hanger” that can dry wet clothes efficiently, rain or shine.

Drawing inspiration from a fictional device in the Japanese manga series Doraemon — the title character’s bamboo propeller — Tsai Kai-yu (蔡凱宇) and Tsai Kai-fan (蔡凱帆), both students in creative product design at Far East University in Greater Tainan, came up with the innovation by integrating fan blades with a clothes hanger.

For those not hip to Japanese manga, Doraemon is a robotic cat sent by a boy in the 22nd century to help his great-grandfather, still a boy in the present, prevent future disasters that befall the family. It began as a print comic in 1969 and became a series that eventually reached 45 books by 1996. Two television versions have been created; the first for a single season, and the second for a program that ran for 1,787 episodes from 1979 to 2005. It is as well-known in Japan as Peanuts is in the United States, and it is almost as popular throughout East Asia.

Doraemon has a fourth-dimensional pocket that contains all sorts of gadgets and tools from the future that he uses to solve Nobi Nobita’s contemporary problems. One of the most well-known is a bamboo copter with twin rotors that the cat puts on his head for convenient transport. And now the copter is a portable clothes dryer in Taiwan:

Tsai Kai-fan said the senior students often expressed grievances about how they had to wash and air-dry their clothes in hotel rooms because of event requirements, but still had half damp outfits by checkout time the next morning.

“Then we reached an epiphany after seeing Doraemon’s bamboo propeller, and started to experiment with the device, which can speed up the drying time of wet clothes and is powered either by batteries or electricity,” the pair said.

Experimentation showed that their brainchild could save about two-thirds of the time needed to air-dry clothes, compared with the natural drying method, and is effective regardless of weather conditions, they said.

Don’t laugh:

The pair’s invention has been flown to the US for the 2012 Invention and New Product Exposition, the US’ largest invention show, on behalf of the their university.

Chen Yu-kang (陳玉崗), a professor in the school’s department of innovative design and entrepreneurship management, said that if the electric fan hanger could be mass-produced, its production costs could be greatly reduced.

“Then, with a price tag of about NT$299, the product would stand a big chance of becoming a hit in the market, as well as creating substantial business opportunities,” Chen said.

That’s not as expensive as it sounds — In American dollars it’s the equivalent of a sawbuck.

On the other end of the design sophistication scale is the subject of an article sent by PB in Bradford, England, about the new 4 World Trade Center building in New York designed by Maki and Associates of Tokyo. Traditional Japanese art is known for its understatement, and now that concept has been extended to what will be the sixth-tallest building in the city of skyscrapers when it’s finished next year:

From some angles, at certain times of day, 4 World Trade Center almost disappears from the downtown skyline…To achieve this effect, the Maki firm designed an especially sheer curtain wall over the steel framework. Glass facades often look cheap because developers will pay only for windows so thin that they bow slightly, creating a quilted effect. The thicker the glass, the flatter the plane of the facade. “It’s not absolutely perfect,” Mr. Sassa said candidly about the curtain wall at 4 World Trade Center, “but I think we’ve achieved something of high quality.”

The article content reminds me of one of the reasons I became interested in Japan many years ago:

“We like the idea of the building dematerializing,” said Osamu Sassa, the project architect for the Maki firm. It is headed by Fumihiko Maki, 83, who won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1993, but has been little known in this country until recently. “A lot of inherently good qualities of design take time to appreciate,” Mr. Sassa said. “Subtlety extends one’s appreciation.”

And another:

The Japanese architects insisted on a level of detail and near-perfection that frequently perplexed and frustrated their American counterparts.

And a third:

(N)ot all of their many subtle touches were purely in the interest of aesthetic clarity.

For example, deep notches were created in the two broad angles of the tower’s parallelogram shape to help define the edges of the facade. “The added benefit,” Mr. Sassa said with a smile, “was that it increased the number of corner offices.”

If you like the bamboo copter idea but don’t need a portable clothes dryer, you can always get the toy.

Posted in Letter bombs, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Taiwan | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Japan’s back pages

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 4, 2012

THE Japan that emerges in stories printed below the fold and in the back pages of newspapers, or on less frequently accessed news websites, is a different place than that presented in the industrial mass media. Here are some stories that demonstrate why.

Water business

The phrase “water business” in Japan is usually a euphemism for the enterprises conducted in entertainment districts at night, particularly drinking establishments.

But most people outside the region are unaware that Japan is a global leader in another sort of water business — that for the technology used in water supply and sewage systems. In fact, a paperback was published a few months ago with the premise that Japan is the global leader in water technology systems. Whether that claim is true or not, several entities in the country have established a reputation for expertise in the sector, and they are working to expand their operations.

For example, the Fukuoka City government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for joint research in water supply and treatment.

The Kyushu city developed the technology for reusing waste water from the necessity to deal with its own chronic water shortages. They became so successful that they now want to make a paying business of it. Fukuoka City was also the first municipality in Japan to process waste water for use as water in the toilet, and they also are known for building a network of tunnels that carry off the water from the heavy summer rains to prevent flooding.

Meanwhile, the growth of the economy and the population in Vietnam strained that nation’s water systems infrastructure, and they chose to look to Japan for help. In fact, the city of Haiphong is already working with the city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City’s neighbor, to prevent leakage from their water supply systems.

Kitakyushu has been active in this sector in Cambodia for some time. As of last December, they were serving as the technical consultants for water technology in nine Cambodian cities, and last month they began helping two other cities in that country to expand their water supply systems.

Fukuoka City is also involved in the water business in Burma. The Water Department dispatched a technician to Rangoon last month to conduct surveys and provide guidance, and they’ll send a full team later. The Burmese government also sent one of their technicians to Fukuoka City for training.

Apart from altruism, one objective is to increase the opportunities for local businesses to receive contracts from the Southeast Asian countries for infrastructure improvements. The Fukuoka City project in Burma is being conducted in tandem with the UN Habitat Fukuoka office. That organization is particularly interested in water purification and desalinization systems.

Rare Earth

The temporary Chinese suspension of rare earth metal exports during the standoff over the Senkakus in the fall of 2010 certainly got the attention of Japanese industry.  They wasted no time to start looking for new sources for the metals that couldn’t be used as a political weapon. For example, it was announced earlier this week that imports of rare earth metals would soon begin from India. Also, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. and Kurume-based Shibata Sangyo have teamed to launch the world’s first business for recovering and recycling the rare earth metal tantalum from discarded electronic products. Tantalum is used primarily as a material for condensers in PCs and Smartphones, but all of it is imported. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry estimates that recovering the tantalum from products discarded in Japan in a year would yield about 64 tons, accounting for 14% of the amount used here annually. Fukuoka Prefecture and Mitsui plan to commercialize the recycling technology and to create a structure that enables electronics parts manufacturers to procure the metal without concerns of interrupted supply.

More than a year ago, Japanese researchers announced they had produced the first artificial rare earth metal, an alloy similar to palladium. That metal is essential for making electronic parts, and is also used as a catalyzer to clean exhaust gas. While their method is not feasible for the commercial production of palladium, the researchers intend to apply it to create other alloys as rare earth substitutes. They say they’ve begun joint research projects with automobile manufacturers, but are keeping the details under the hood for now.


A ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in Yufuin, Oita, will generate electricity from the hot springs on the site using a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall. They plan to sell some of the power generated to Kyushu Electric Power through the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that will begin in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at JPY 20 per kW, the spa could recover the costs by 2015.


Japanese astronomers using a Hawaii-based telescope said last month they had discovered a “proto-cluster” of galaxies 12.72 billion light-years away from Earth. They claim that’s the most distant cluster ever discovered, which would also make it one of the first structures formed by the Big Bang.

“This shows a galaxy cluster already existed in the early stages of the universe when it was still less than one billion years into its history of 13.7 billion years,” the team of astronomers said in a press release.

But the discovery may already have been superseded.

Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have previously announced the discovery of a possible cluster of galaxies around 13.1 billion light-years from Earth, but that has not yet been confirmed, the Japanese researchers said.


What Japanese women call with a smirk the “bar code” — the hair style created by follically deficient men, otherwise known as a combover in the English-speaking world — may, along with toupees and implants, be obsolete a decade from now:

Japanese researchers have successfully grown hair on hairless mice by implanting follicles created from stem cells, they announced Wednesday, sparking new hopes of a cure for baldness.

Led by Professor Takashi Tsuji from Tokyo University of Science, the team bioengineered hair follicles and transplanted them into the skin of hairless mice.

The creatures eventually grew hair, which continued regenerating in normal growth cycles after old hairs fell out.

The process has the potential for applications greater than flattering oneself in the mirror, however:

Tsuji and his researchers found hair follicles can be grown with adult stem cells, the study said.

“Our current study thus demonstrates the potential for not only hair regeneration therapy but also the realisation of bioengineered organ replacement using adult somatic stem cells,” it said.

Stop the snickering, ladies — before long another recent discovery in Japan might produce more satisfying answers when you interrogate the mirror about the fairest of them all.

Two different teams of university researchers have found the gene that causes freckling and skin blotches after exposure to the sun. One team was from Osaka University (working with cosmetics manufacturer Kanebo), and the other team, using different methods, combined researchers from Nagasaki and Kumamoto universities.

Both groups focused on ultraviolet hypersensitivity, a rare condition of which only five cases are known in the world. The condition was first identified in 1981 in Japan, but little effort was put into treatment because the only problem it causes is sunburn. The Osaka-Kanebo group inserted mouse chromosomes in the nuclei of cells from two patients with the condition to determine which would provide better protection to ultraviolet rays. Exposure to the rays would prevent multiplication of the cells, which would die after six weeks, but cells with the new chromosome were resistant to ultraviolet rays.

Crab computing

Here’s a story that made a lot more sense after spending the past week trying to make sense of the functions on my new PC:

A team of scientists from Japan and England have built a computer that uses crabs as information carriers, to implement basic circuits of collision-based computing.

The explanation:

Researchers at Japan’s Kobe University and the UK’s University of the West of England, Bristol, found that when two swarms of soldier crabs collide, they merge and continue in a direction that is the sum of their velocities. This behaviour means that swarms of crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.


The swarms were placed at the entrances of the logic gates and persuaded to move by a shadow that fooled them into thinking a predatory bird was overhead. Results closely matched those of the simulation, suggesting that crab-powered computers are possible.

The experiment builds on a previous model of unconventional computing, based on colliding billiard balls.

That set the author of the article to wondering:

The paper’s authors did not say whether public money was used to fund their experiments.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem as if the experiment would be so expensive that a university couldn’t fund it on its own. The author might be suggesting that futzing around with crab-powered computers is a frivolous enterprise with no apparent application, but there might be some there there.  Explains Josh Rothman:

What’s the point? Increasingly, computer scientists are interested in the ways that natural systems solve computing problems. Often, they do so in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. Other researchers have investigated the ways in which honeybees compute the most efficient route through a field of flowers (see a well-reasoned take on that research here); one of the crab-computer researchers, Andrew Adamatzky, has been exploring the possibility of slime-mold computing. Future generations of computers, they argue, may well be inspired by nature.


The Moji Customs Office in Kyushu reports that the value of beer exported through the Port of Hakata in 2011 totaled JPY 1.225 billion, an increase of 6.3 times from the previous year. The volume of exports totaled 10,960 kiloliters, a year-on-year increase of 9.2 times. That set a record, and it was the first new record in 10 years. South Korea accounted for 57% of the exports, and there’s a story behind that. Premium Japanese beer has become popular in that country, which is closer to the Port of Hakata (also in Kyushu) than to Tokyo. Sapporo also established a sales company in South Korea last June. And don’t forget that the Japanese built the first breweries on the Korean Peninsula to begin with when the two countries were merged a century ago.

Does this mean tastes are changing in South Korea? The mass market beer in that country may be even weaker and thinner than the adult soft drink that pretends to be beer in the United States. That’s perhaps due to the robust and hearty nature of Korean food, with its industrial grade spices. It would make sense that people preferred something less intense to wash it all down with.

Hand grenade hotline

To conclude, here’s something I’ll bet nobody expected. The Fukuoka police became the first police department in the country to institute a hot line for tips on hand grenades. They’ll pay JPY 100,000 for each hand grenade found or confiscated as a result of a tip.

Concerns have been growing lately over the use of hand grenades to attack companies or in gang fights. Hand grenades were used in six incidents in the prefecture last year, the most in the country. Rewards will also be given for the discovery of homemade bombs. They’re serious — the police have printed 2,000 posters and 5,000 flyers.

They’d better be serious if gangs are bringing grenades to a gunfight.


This clip of an English-language news report provides further info on the changing Joseon tastes for beer. They mention that 60 brewpubs have been established (by then) in South Korea since laws were relaxed in 2002. Pardon the goofiness with the Youtube link.

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Considering (a) that microbrewing had already taken off in Japan at that time, and (b) the substantial but largely unacknowledged influence that Japan still has on Korean culture, it is quite possible that the Korean laws were changed after the Koreans sampled some of the Japanese beverages.

Not that they’d ever admit it.


Here’s another change: When I arrived in Japan in 1984, most funerals were still conducted in the home of the deceased. Now, however, they’re usually held in funeral parlors.

I attended a funeral in one of those establishments a week ago today for a pleasant man who passed away at the age of 86. I’ve been to enough of them by now to be familiar with the customs, but I was intrigued when I recognized the song the pianist was playing just before the service started: Hana (Flower), by Okinawan roots rocker Kina Shokichi. It is interesting to reflect on which things eventually become accepted as part of the common culture. No English translation can do the lyrics justice, so I won’t even try, but the song works in that context.

Here are three different versions spliced into one video.


Posted in Business, finance and the economy, International relations, New products, Science and technology, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Kobot

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 26, 2011

WHEN the Segway hit the market 10 years ago next week, some people viewed it as a revolutionary product with the transformational potential of the Internet. Rather than transforming anything, however, after a decade down the road the device has become a SWPL toy for a certain type of status-seeking urbanite who wants to differentiate himself from the bicycle crowd. They’re the same sort of folks who go out of their way to pay through the nose for a mug of designer coffee at a trendy shop rather than a regular cup of Joe.

The adult two-wheeler hasn’t even got that far in Japan, where only about a thousand have been sold. Here, they’re used exclusively by corporate employees on larger tracts of private property, such as production plants or theme parks. The Nagasaki resort Huis ten Bosch, for example, has 10 of them.

Those looking for an intermediate alternative to the automobile and the bicycle might be interested in test driving a new transportation device jointly developed by the robot manufacturer tmsuk (yes, that’s how they spell it) and pharmaceutical/industrial equipment manufacturer Kyowa. It’s called the Kobot, and they’re touting it as the next-generation electric personal vehicle. The public will get a chance to see it up close for the first time when it’s exhibited in this year’s Tokyo Motor Show, which opens in the first week of December.

The two companies have a vision for the Kobot similar to that people once had for the Segway. They see it as a car that will change the shape of the future – the shape of vehicles, the shape of transportation, and the relationship between people and their cars. Indeed, the car itself is capable of changing shape. One of the three models can be folded in a manner similar to a cellphone to reduce its size by about 25% for storage.

As you can see from the photo, it is compact and shaped somewhat like a bean, or at least that’s what the promo material says. At present, there are two one-person models and one two-person model. Kyowa/tmsuk are projecting speeds of 45-80 kilometers per hour, and they’re working to give it the capability of traveling for up to 100 kilometers on one charge.

In addition to use by a single owner, the developers anticipate the increasing popularity in Japan of car-sharing schemes in condos and other urban neighborhoods will create another niche for the vehicle. If things fall into place, it could be commercialized and placed on the market next fall.

If that happens, perhaps they could use this as a tip for their TV ads.

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Mikan liquor-ish

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 11, 2011

ONE of the classic scenes of Japanese domestic life in the winter is a family seated around the kotatsu (a low wooden table with a futon around the sides and a heat source underneath), drinking green tea and snacking on the tasty citrus fruit known as mikan. As easy to peel as a tangerine but with more heft, the mikan is sometimes known as the mandarin orange or Satsuma orange in English. It is by far the mostly frequently eaten citrus fruit in Japan; statistics for 2006 show that per capita consumption of oranges was roughly 585 grams, while that for mikan was 4.55 kilograms.

Its ancestor came to Japan from China centuries ago through the port at what is now Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, but it’s generally accepted that the variety now grown and eaten in Japan is a hybrid created in Kagoshima. That’s based on the research of the late Prof. Tanaka Chozaburo, who spent his life studying the mikan, and who identified 159 seed varieties in the same genus. Mikan groves are most likely to be found in Shikoku and Kyushu, with Wakayama accounting for 19% of the national production, but there are orchards as far north as Kanagawa and Chiba, both of which border the Tokyo Metro District.

Mikan are most often consumed raw or in juice, but with overall consumption declining, the city of Arida, Wakayama, started looking for ways to boost demand for their local variety. It took two years, but local growers and processors working with a Nagano winery succeeded in developing a wine and a liqueur made from the fruit.

One of the people who worked on the project was Takano Yutaka of the Japan Sommelier Association. Mr. Takano said it was difficult because mikan have less sugar than grapes. They froze the juice first in the same process used to make ice wine, extracted the part with the high sugar content, and let it ferment for six months. The beverage is said to retain the fruit’s original aroma and tartness, as well as being thick and very sweet. Tipplers can down it straight, with ice, or with carbonated water, and all of this is starting to sound as if it’s being marketed primarily to young females.

The Wakayamanians have produced 1,500 bottles of wine, called Himekibana, priced at JPY 3,150 yen, and 3,000 bottles of the liqueur, known as Kahorikibana, sold for JPY 1,050 yen. If you’re in Japan, you can buy it at the larger Aeon stores and on the Internet. And if you read Japanese you can roll on over to the mikan page of JA, the agricultural cooperative, as well as the page of the Japan Sommelier Association.

I don’t think I’d be interested in drinking it more than once, but it does seem to have the potential for becoming a nice sherbet, doesn’t it?

Speaking of mikan, sweetness, and females, you get a chance to see and hear Morning Musume — the daughters of the morning — perform the song titled “Mikan”. Child love!

Those whose default attitude toward Japanese pop culture is stuck on “snide” should read this and adjust your metric accordingly.

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Steam cleaning

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 10, 2011

TAKING the waters at a hot spring is good for what ails you. Among the benefits are invigorated blood circulation, increased metabolism, and normalized endocrine function. With natural hot springs throughout the archipelago, the Japanese have known about and availed themselves of these properties for more than a millennium.

Now the Floricultural Group in the Agricultural Research Division of Oita Prefecture’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Center in Beppu, the country’s unofficial spa capital, have discovered that hot springs are good for flora as well as fauna. Specifically, they’ve developed a way to use the steam from hot springs to disinfect the soil and the materials used for growing beds.

Here’s how the system works. They start with a 1.6-square-meter steam vat surrounded by a 60 centimeter-high block wall. The hot spring steam is brought up from underneath, and the entire apparatus is covered with a sheet during the sterilization period. At 120º C, it takes 30 minutes to give the treatment to pots or seedbeds and two or three hours to soil.

The research center says this method has several advantages to the chemical method currently used. It sterilizes both the surface and the interior. The materials can be used as soon as they cool, whereas the use of chemicals requires aeration after the process to release any trapped gases. In addition to its effectiveness, it’s environmentally friendly and labor efficient. The use of the system has gradually been growing in the prefecture, and 50 farmers have adopted it in the past year. Limiting its diffusion, however, is the cost of the devices used to create the steam and the higher fuel costs.

Who knows — if they ever get those problems ironed out, it might result in the emergence of an agri-spa industry in Oita!

Speaking of interesting devices, those inspired goofballs at Maywa Denki have created another new musical instrument. Polyrhythmic!

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Aqua vitae Osaka style

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

IF YOU had trouble wrapping your head around the concept of “designer jeans”, wait until you read this: The city of Osaka is selling its tap water in PET bottles.

Or this: The water won a Gold Quality Award in the 50th Monde Selection awards this May. Monde Selection describes itself this way:

Founded in 1961, Monde Selection’s mission is to test consumer products and grant them a bronze, silver, gold or grand gold quality award. This quality label, awarded by a totally independent professional jury, offers the consumer and the producer numerous advantages. No less than 2830 products, coming from over 80 different countries, are tested each year.

See, it's true!

It’s the first time any municipality that produces and sells water in PET bottles has won an award. That’s not as surprising as the fact that there are municipalities that turn on the tap and fill bottles to compete with the likes of Evian to begin with. To be sure, the city says the beverage is regular tap water that has been rigorously purified. They launched sales of the product in 2007 to encourage more people to drink tap water, and flog 500 millimeter-bottles for JPY 100 yen ($US 1.30). It’s sold under the name of Honmaya, which means “It’s true” in the Kansai dialect, and it’s available in convenience stores and anywhere finer beverages are sold.

If you had trouble wrapping your head around that concept, try this one: They’ve sold well over a million bottles in four years. It’s not surprising at all that the city is thrilled to receive international recognition of the safety and taste of its water. Now that it has legitimate cachet, they’ll probably start plugging it as Gold Label H2O. Honmaya!

Not so long ago, they used to warn travelers to certain countries not to drink the water. They don’t have to worry about that in Osaka at all.

Speaking of which, teachers and dance folk might enjoy this video presenting a new technique for bilingual dance instruction in English and Chinese. Heck, I’d study Chinese with that schoolmarm, and bring her anything she wanted to drink in lieu of apples.

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Posted in Food, I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Tomato bread

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 21, 2011

A NOVEL combination of the staple foods of East and West is bread made with rice, which is available in every Japanese supermarket. (Rice bread wasn’t on American supermarket shelves when I left in 1984, and I don’t know if it is now.) Rice bread tastes a lot better than the plain white variety made with cardboard and library paste — what doesn’t? — but whole wheat bread is still my preference.

Tomato bread its own self

“Why stop there?” must have been the inspiration for the Bon Ohashi Bread Co. in Nagaoka, Niigata, and a research group at the School of Agriculture at Niigata University, because they’ve jointly developed a new type of bread made with both tomatoes and rice. They’ve applied for a patent on the production method, and three of the company’s directly operated outlets in Niigata City began selling the tomato bread earlier this summer.

The research group was studying ways to process ultra hard rice. That’s unsuitable for rice bread, but it is effective for preventing diabetes and obesity. After working on the method for about a year, their Eureka moment arrived when they decided to let the rice germinate and cook it without milling it first. Adding raw tomatoes to the dough reportedly gives it a rich aroma and limits the amount of active oxygen. Bon Ohashi makes four kinds of tomato bread and sells it for 268 yen a loaf, which is a bit steep.

Even though I’m not a loafer too lazy to slice tomatoes for sandwich use, I’d try the tomato rice bread if I lived within shouting distance of Niigata. It looks fine in that photo. I wonder how it toasts?

Speaking of rice bread, one of the hit products in Japan last year was Sanyo’s rice bread baking machine. My wife has borrowed one from a friend a few times, and it does produce tasty bread.

Here’s a description of that product from Reuters. It contains one of the most ignorant statements I’ve ever seen in a newspaper article, which is saying something, even for Reuters:

Though a Sanyo spokeswoman said she thought novelty was behind the machine’s popularity, food analyst Hisao Nagayama attributed it to changing eating habits — a trend toward more Western food and busy lives that make it harder to find the time to cook rice, consumption of which has gone down.

Finding the time to cook rice should never be a problem, no matter how busy anyone is. I speak from experience, because I often make the rice at home. It takes five minutes at most to put the rice in a bowl, rinse it off several times, put it in the rice cooker, add water, close the lid, and press the button. Add 15 seconds if you make it the night before to eat the next day and set the timer for starting the cooking process.

Most Japanese eat white rice, and that takes 30 minutes of unsupervised cooking. We usually eat brown rice, and that takes 90 minutes. Our cooker also has a function that speeds up the cooking if we’re in a hurry. In contrast, the rice bread machine my wife borrowed requires three to four hours of preparation time and unsupervised baking from start to finish.

“Busy lives that make it harder to find the time to cook rice”? Snort. Nagayama Hisao is a he rather than a she, but knowing about modern rice cookery is unrelated to sex or food analyst certification — it takes about a week of living in a Japanese home.

Another real possibility is that Reuters took it upon themselves to add the part after the dash (or after the phrase “Western food”) in the quoted excerpt.

Either way, if the industrial mass media can’t get something as basic as this right, they can’t be trusted to get anything right.

The backup singers were brothers named Bret and Bo Terre.

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Posted in Food, Mass media, New products | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

What is reality?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 14, 2011

THAT won’t be an idle question after you read this article in the Weekly Standard:

Last month an American woman living in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province, wrote about her experience in a fake Apple Store. An entire store selling Apple products​—​iPads, iPods, laptops, and software​—​was replicated. It looked like a real Apple Store. It had the same stainless-steel-and-natural-wood style you see in upper-middle-class suburbs across America. It had the same posters on the walls and product displays on the floor. The employees were wearing Apple Store uniforms. The only tip-offs were shoddy construction on the store’s spiral staircase and the fact that the words “Apple Store” incongruously appeared beneath the Apple corporate logo…

The fakery was so complete that even the employees thought that they actually worked for Apple. Once the story of the faux Apple Store got out, the manager assured customers and the press that even though the store was “unauthorized,” all of the gadgets they sell are genuine. And maybe they are—because most of the silicon goodies Apple sells are made in China, too.

How fitting that the source of all this is China.

I make a point of avoiding posts based only on links, but I thought the story and its multiple dimensions deserve as large an audience as possible.

Posted in China, I couldn't make this up if I tried, New products, Popular culture, Social trends | 1 Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 2, 2011

COMING to Japan from the United States, it sometimes seems as if the people of the former have a more relaxed approach to their many traditions than do the people of the latter about their fewer traditions. That’s to the extent that people in either country take an active interest in tradition at all.

Here’s another example I discovered recently. Nakashima Biniiru Kako in Hitachi, Ibaraki, manufactures torii for Shinto shrines using polyvinyl chloride pipe. That’s a good idea when you think about it—the material is cheap, durable, light, easy to replace, impervious to water or ultraviolet rays, and if it’s red, most people won’t notice the difference anyway.

Company President Nakashima Masayoshi came up with the idea to use PVC pipe as a replacement for the usual stone, steel, or wood about 17 years ago. (There are also a few made of porcelain, including one at a shrine in the ceramics center of Arita.) Mr. Nakashima says he receives orders for about 20 in a good month, so there might be more of them around than anyone realizes. In fact, he does well enough to have a website for them, which you can see here. (Japanese only, of course) His company has another clever product, by the way: folding, portable storage containers for garbage. Keeping the magpies away until the garbage trucks show up can be a problem.

No one has come up with a satisfactory theory on the origin of torii, which mark the entrances to the shrine’s sacred space, and have become the symbol of shrines themselves. A few of the oldest ones have doors, including those at secondary shrines at Ise, so they probably were real gates at one time. Now the gates are all doorless, which means anyone can come and go as they please. “Straight is the gate and narrow is the path” isn’t an idea that would have originated in Shinto, but then the Japanese have a relaxed approach to religion, too. Try this torii and shrine combo in Okayama City for another example.

None of this should be surprising. After all, no one is able to agree whether Shinto is a “religion” to begin with.

Here’s something that is a bit of a surprise, however: Eighteen-year-old Terakubo Erena holding her own with some very heavy hitters.

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Posted in New products, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »