Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
It's official: Mr. Children is my all-time favorite J pop band name.
This song isn't from their latest album being promoted all around town right now, but it's catchy nonetheless.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
This Christmas we'll be in New York just long enough to empty stockings and see relatives and maybe hit the Bronx Zoo and go disco-bowling at New Roc, so I'll have a long stretch of days to fill when we get back, 13 days, to be precise, to entertain and supervise with grace and good humor (hah!) and if I'm feeling generous maybe even enrich my children's Expat Experience (could it be any richer, really??). It's always good to set the bar high at this early stage, because I'll need room to lower it later.
Unfortunately we have done almost everything there is for kids to do in Tokyo at least once, and so certain novelties have worn off and a bit of been-there, done-that malaise has started to seep into our weekends. So keeping things interesting for an entire school vacation will take some doing. Getting dressed and leaving the apartment-- preferably before noon-- is half the battle.
Also helpful: a to-do (go-to?) list! So here goes. Some of these places we haven't been yet but have been meaning to check out:
-Disaster Prevention center: I'm told that this place in Kita-ku puts you inside an earthquake simulator so you can experience tremors of Kanto proportions. Cool! Apparently there is also a Life Safety Learning Center run by the Tokyo Fire Dept. that offers free courses in what to do in case of emergency (Japanese name: Honjo Bosaikan). Need to research this further. This YouTube video makes me nervous though.
-Trail walk in Kamakura: We have been out to see the Daibutsu but I think the boys are old enough now for the Ten-en hiking course through the woods. If old ladies can do it, so can we. Here's hoping for some clear blue skies-and-sunny January weather Tokyo is known for.
-Lunch at Shabuzen in Ginza: a shabu-shabu place with a NYC-diner vibe that Terry and I recently discovered, where you sit at a counter and have your own personal pot to boil the beef in. We need a break from Korean barbecue.
-Rinshi no mori park, one of this city's best-kept secrets hiding in Meguro-ku between Shimo-Meguro and Koyamadai. We cycled there once but it's definitely worth another trip, mainly for the climbing ropes designed for older boys like mine. It's like the obstacle course at Heiwa no mori koen , without the putrid pond!
-Cycle from home through Ebisu and along the Naka-meguro canal, maybe even plot the best back-streets route to school, so come spring, we can say goodbye to the buses.
-Salt and Tobacco Museum! Admission is cheap, it's close to Shibuya station, and you're in and out in an hour, my friend Katy informs me.
-Visit babies. More than a few friends have given birth recently and aren't traveling. Who doesn't want a couple of grubby grade-schoolers handling their infants? Germs will only make that developing immune system stronger.
-Cinemah at Roppongi Hills. A surefire hit, along with a stop at the TV Asahi HQ (there's an inscrutable Power Ranger arcade game in the lobby that my boys are obsessed with) and a romp under the big Spider. Maybe we'll brave the Mori Art Museum (though the current "Odani Motohiko: Phantom Limb" exhibit sounds only marginally better than this earlier fiasco). We could also skip the art and just take in the City View --a bit old-hat, but we haven't been since summer 2009, and it's always fun to try to find the relatively diminutive Ebisu Prime Square Tower with its distinctive slide projector-carousel top. Because then we can point and shout, that's right next to where we live!
-Ueno park. We've only been a couple of times, and there's so much to do there. Our first visit three years ago was a blast, despite the cold gray day, and there was so much we missed. The boys are probably too big now for the kiddie rides next to the Toshogu shrine, but there's always the science museum and the swan boats. The zoo is too depressing, though I might go if/when the new pandas arrive. The last article I read reported that Japan had agreed to pay $1.9 million a year to borrow a new pair from China, but they're not due to arrive until early 2011.
-Sword Museum in Yoyogi, where "the works of famous swordsmiths from the Heian to Edo Periods (782-1867) are on display." A no-brainer.
-SKIING! Ishiuchi Maruyama, just past the city day-tripper favorite Gala Yuzawa (so a 10 min. taxi ride from Echigo-Yuzawa station, less than 2 hrs, with transfers, from Ebisu, or 1 hr. 20 min from Tokyo station), has a nice variety of trails including a beginner slope that starts at the peak. There's night-skiing too, and lots of slope-side restaurants with space heaters where you can leave your boots and hang up your mittens to dry.
I think that's enough for now. Wish me luck.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Monday, November 29, 2010
Ah, the foliage. Amazing.
Yesterday I made Dylan walk across Yoyogi park, starting at the East Entrance, past the fountain and great lawn and over the cycling path and through the woods and out the west side, in order to get to his Swim Friends session at the National Olympic Center. So these photos were taken at around 10:45 am... Beautiful, ne?
Saturday, November 27, 2010
And they gave me a whole box of it to take home.
Corn tea. Who knew?
This wikipedia page explains: Oksusu cha is made from dried, roasted corn kernels, so it is pale yellow in color and naturally sweet. The variety of corn most often used is Gang-naeng-i (강냉이), typically grown in the Gangwon province on South Korea's eastern coast, so the drink is particularly popular in that region. It is said to be good for you if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease.
Now who wants a cup?
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Time for National Azabu Supermarket's annual Christmas tree sale! Or, shall I say, time to play, Let's see how much the foreigners will pay!
Guess how much that small Charlie Brown-size one in the middle there is going for. Go on, guess!
OK, I'll tell you: 18,000 yen. Yep, no lie. That's $215 folks, according to today's exchange rate.
But it's in a pot, so maybe when you take it home it will last for years to come. One can only hope.
The price tag on this crazy-perfect one reads 52,500 yen, or around $630. Oh yeah. It's big, and it's beautiful, and it's from Oregon (according to a lady who works at the store) but that's just nuts.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Interesting fun facts from the company's website:
WHAT IS THE SMOKE THAT IS RELEASED?
This is NOT smoke – It is simply condensed air (vapor) which is mixed with the nicotine in the electronic cigarette cartridge to emulate the sensation of smoking, and give you the instant nicotine intake that you want – when you want it, where you want it. Like in winter time when you exhale.DOES IT SMELL?
The vapor is odorless and dissipates within seconds. It does not linger, nor does it cause discoloration to walls – unlike cigarette smoke. It doesn’t give you ’smokers breath’ or leave your hands and clothes smelling of cigarettes either. No yellow teeth and fingers.
SO IT’S COMPLETELY HARMLESS?
YES. Ecorettes do not contain tobacco, tar or any of the 4000 chemicals and 42 known carcinogens, you normally inhale from a cigarette. Tobacco and the carcinogenic chemicals are what cause health problems, E-cigs contain neither. Ecorette electronic cigarettes do contain nicotine, which whilst not dangerous is very addictive, so we only sell our products to responsible adults over the age of 18.
Monday, November 22, 2010
"These chairs represent everything I love about Japan, someone had put these chairs here for the comfort of others, they're not owned by the bus company or the local council. They're not vandalised or messed around with, here they sit everyday. I love these chairs and I'm not on drugs before anyone asks....."
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Nature and Photography. Few things rank higher on the Favorites list here in Japan. And this time of year, all those lovely changing leaves are a call to bring out the big guns.
Sadly, I was not so heavily armed; these photos were taken with my iphone, which is all I had on me that day.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Last weekend we took the train to Showa Kinen park to check out the fall leaves and ended up out on the lake in a pair of pedal boats.
Conor, doing all the work
under a maple
Can you see me? Terry took this from across a small pond or creek in the park's Japanese garden.
By Hiroko Tabuchi
TOKYO —When the toasts are raised here next year at the opening of the world’s tallest communications tower, yakuza gangsters will not be celebrating.
The yakuza, as members of Japan’s criminal underworld are known, are banned from the construction of the 2,080-foot tower, developers say.
“The mob cannot come here,” said Toru Hironaka, a lawyer who leads a legal team retained by the tower’s developers to bar crime syndicates from the construction project.
The ban is part of a nationwide effort by the Japanese government and the business community to sever the deep-rooted ties between organized crime and corporate Japan, especially in the construction industry.
As part of the national crackdown, on Thursday a top crime boss of Japan’s largest crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested on charges of extorting 40 million yen ($480,000) from a construction company in the western city of Kyoto, police officials said.
The man arrested, Kiyoshi Takayama, 63, had been seen as the syndicate’s de facto leader after its official boss was imprisoned in 2005 for possessing firearms, which are illegal in Japan.
“Organized crime is threatening Japan’s entire economy,” Kohei Kishi, director of the organized crime division of Japan’s National Police Agency, said in recent interview. “And they have deep roots in construction.”
The National Police Agency and other government departments are pressuring businesses of various sorts to stamp out mafia links, which police officials describe as more entrenched in corporate Japan than in the United States.
The country’s finance ministry, for example, has directed banks to step up safeguards to prevent money laundering, cut off loans to mob-related companies and deny bank accounts to individuals with known gangster ties.
The big target, though, is Japan’s 30 trillion yen ($362 billion) construction industry, where the yakuza have long run rampant. In the 1990s, at the peak of yakuza involvement with construction, police estimate that gangs pocketed at least 2 to 3 percent of all construction spending in Japan.
Many experts say Japan’s crackdown efforts are long overdue. The crime syndicates now operate with such sophistication that Jake Adelstein, who has written extensively about Japanese organized crime, calls the yakuza “Goldman Sachs with guns.”
Across Japan, almost 83,000 gangsters operate in 22 crime syndicates, according to police data, that contribute to a mob-controlled economy worth an estimated 20 trillion yen ($242 billion) a year.
In the construction industry, the yakuza’s influence dates back to at least Japan’s extensive rebuilding after the devastation of World War II, when the mob helped supply cheap labor to contractors, aiding in the breakup of worker strikes and the enforcement of labor compliance.
A modern-day yakuza boss pressures developers to pay “protection money” to cover construction projects — as in the case in Kyoto — or use front companies to win lucrative construction or procurement contracts, police say.
In a 2007 police survey of 3,000 construction companies in Japan, 34 percent of respondents said they had been approached by the yakuza with requests for payments or business in the last year.
Sometimes it is the developers that reach out to the yakuza — to muscle reluctant owners into selling their land, for example. In 2008, the president of a big real estate company, Suruga, resigned after police arrested members of a front company that Suruga had hired to evict occupants from a Tokyo building. Banks quickly recalled their loans from Suruga, and the company went bankrupt.
“The construction industry was once tolerant of yakuza involvement,” said Hiroshi Inuzuka, a lawyer and adviser to the nationwide Federation of Construction Contractors, a trade group. “A good project manager was expected to smooth over ‘local relations,’ which involved working with the yakuza so there would be no trouble,” he said.
The industry’s anti-yakuza effort, which began in 2008, has shifted away from the past focus on going after the crime gangs themselves. Now the emphasis is on monitoring companies and imposing tougher penalties on ones that do business with the mob.
In April, the federation advised its members to adapt a clause in all contracts that would void obligations if a contractor was found to have links with the yakuza.
The new Tokyo tower — which is called the Tokyo Sky Tree — has become a prominent symbol of the crackdown. Companies involved include the railroad operator Tobu Railway and the Obayashi Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest contractors.
In late 2008, the companies working on the Sky Tree teamed up with local businesses to form an anti-yakuza committee. It is one of more than 100 similar committees that have been formed here in the past few years.
Mr. Hironaka, the tower’s anti-mob lawyer, says movement to and from the construction site is closely monitored by guards and with closed-circuit video. Contracts are scrutinized to make sure that no construction equipment or materials — not even boxed lunches or gloves for workers — come from companies with mob affiliations.
“The site is water-tight,” Mr. Hironaka said. “It will take a lot to get past all that.”
Local governments, whose public works projects account for the bulk of construction spending in Japan, have also joined the campaign to extract the yakuza from the building business. Next month, Tokyo is set to ban any company or individual affiliated with the yakuza from city contracts — from office supplies to public works — along with threats of penalties and public disclosure for companies found to have mafia ties.
Morio Umeda, who runs a public anti-yakuza advice center in Tokyo and runs seminars for companies on dealing with the yakuza, says inquiries are rising as more companies try to sever ties with the mob. In 2009, similar advice centers across the country received more than 4,200 consultations about organized crime from companies in construction or real estate, about 12 percent of total consultations.
“I tell them that they should not be afraid, that they should go to the police even if they are warned not to,” said Mr. Umeda, a former anti-yakuza officer with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. “But especially at busy construction sites, it can sometimes be difficult to be aware of who’s coming and going.”
And the mob is threatening to fight back. Last month, police say, a gunshot was fired into the wall of a construction site linked to Takenaka Corporation, one of Japan’s biggest general contractors, the fourth shooting at construction sites in Tokyo this year. Although no one has been hurt, the shootings have resonated in a country where guns are almost unobtainable for everyone except gangsters.
Those close to the yakuza call the attacks a sign of desperation.
“It’s the ice age” for organized crime, said Yukio Yamanouchi, a former legal adviser to the Yamaguchi-gumi, who still defends members of organized crime.
“They looked for new earnings in the mainstream economy, but that’s triggered a backlash,” Mr. Yamanouchi said. “Now, some yakuza are worrying where their next meal will come from.”
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Pessimism abounds, but there are solid reasons why Japan's future may not be as bleak as it seems.
Nov. 16, 2010
In Japan, anxiety over a lost decade has given way to fear that economic growth is never coming back. Japanese pundits warn that the country has “lost its animal spirits.”
A business leader I spoke with during a recent visit talked of relocating his company’s operations to Singapore. Another asked if I thought Japan “would still be around” in 20 years. I’m not sure what he meant, but I know it isn’t good.
Two decades ago, Japan’s gross government debt stood at 63 percent of the country’s G.D.P. Today, it’s at nearly 200 percent. Consumer prices have fallen in 9 of the past 20 years, depressing production. A third of Japanese between the ages of 20 and 30 don’t have jobs. [Blogger's note: This explains the regular weekday crowds of young adults strolling and shopping in Dogenzaka and Udagawacho and Harajuku, as if they had all day to do so!] Falling birthrates suggest there may soon be just two workers to support each retiree, yet there is little prospect of immigration reform to give the work force new dynamism.
Add projections for several more years of flat growth, frustration with the country’s deeply dysfunctional political system, and worries that Japan has no place in the emerging world order and you begin to see the depth of the country’s malaise. Japan’s alliance with the United States has been stuck in the mud for some time, and the country is ever more reliant for growth on an increasingly unfriendly China.
Japan’s business community seems the most disillusioned segment of society. Senior executives I spoke with acknowledge that Prime Minister Naoto Kan is more competent than his hopeless predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, but they have little else positive to say about his government. In part, that’s because the Democratic Party of Japan arrived in power just 15 months ago after a half century of nearly uninterrupted Liberal Democratic Party rule. Only since August 2009 have the DPJ and the country’s business community begun to build working relationships.
But there is also a philosophical divide between the two sides. The DPJ’s traditional ties with trade unions, and the anti-corporate rhetoric of many of its leaders, make mutual suspicion difficult to overcome. Recent party efforts to build bridges with the Keidanren, Japan’s lead industrial organization, have produced little. In addition, many of Japan’s business leaders have been in place for a long time, and some are resistant to change.
Yet, there are three reasons to believe that all this pessimism is overdone.
First, the DPJ and the business elite now appear to see that they are stuck with one another. The DPJ will remain in power for awhile, and the industrial elite knows it can’t simply wait for the moribund LDP to stage a comeback.
In fact, finance and economic officials say work is moving forward on a proposal for a substantial reduction in the corporate tax rate, one they said enjoyed support at the highest levels of government. It’s a modest accomplishment, and the devil may yet be in the details, but it’s clearly a positive signal that Japan’s political and business elites can work together more effectively.
In addition, Japan was a one-party system for several decades, and there was little incentive for the bureaucracy to share vital information on the operation of government with leaders of the seemingly eternal opposition. Yet, DPJ officials and the army of bureaucrats tasked with day-to-day operation of government finally appear to be communicating with one another more effectively.
Second, anxiety over China’s recently more aggressive foreign policy has helped put troubled U.S.-Japanese relations back on track. Much work remains to be done to restore damaged trust. These days, U.S. and Chinese officials negotiate questions of trade, currency policy and security while American and Japanese officials bicker over the length of runways at U.S. military bases.
But real progress has been made on an extraordinarily important project: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free trade pact that might one day integrate the Pacific Rim’s largest economies. Singapore, Chile, New Zealand and Brunei are already members. The United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are negotiating to join. Tokyo has finally begun to show interest.
Under the LDP, Japan would not consider membership, since the country’s farmers, a key segment of the LDP’s base, stand to lose the protections of tariffs on imported staples. Prime Minister Kan has expressed interest in joining the pact, and his support will come at a much lower political cost. That’s good news for those in Washington and Tokyo who see advantage in hedging their bets on China via closer ties with one another.
The third reason for a more optimistic view of Japan’s future is that the country’s elected leaders do not face the outraged opposition of citizens and interest groups eager to make trouble in the streets. Following two decades of economic stagnation, there are no Tea Partiers, fuming French transport workers or rock-throwing South Korean students.
In China, despite three decades of go-go growth, officials warn that continued growth of 7 to 8 percent is necessary to create enough new jobs to safeguard “social stability.” Japan, by contrast, will continue to enjoy relative domestic tranquility despite yet another year of growth at less than 2 percent.
In that sense, at least, Japan’s leaders are the envy of the world.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?”
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
(Reuters Pictures) Obama stands between Takao Sato (L), chief monk of the Kotoku-in Temple, and Michiko Sato, the director of the temple, during a visit to the Great Buddha statue in Kamakura on Nov. 14, 2010.
Obama, here as part of a 10-day trip through Asia, spent his last day in Yokohama chatting with the Russian President Medvedev about an Asia-Pacific free trade zone, then taking a helicopter to Kamakura to visit a "colossal copper Buddha that he had seen as a 6-year-old," the IHT reported. "The giant statue, which experts believe dates to 1252, has 656 coils of hair and weighs 121 tons. While there, Obama ate a green tea ice cream bar -- the same kind he had here as a child -- and left with a bag of gifts including bracelets for his daughters Malia and Sasha. 'It is wonderful to return to this great treasure of Japanese culture,' Obama wrote in the guest book. 'Its beauty has stayed with me for many years.'"
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
And now the Japanese affinity for anthropomorphism is being taken to a whole new level.
From today's Asahi Shimbun:
NO LIMIT TO TREND OF GIVING OBJECTS HUMAN FORM
By Keishi Nishimura, Staff Writer
From ancient times, personification has played a major role in Japanese culture.
The Choju-giga (animal caricatures) picture scrolls that portray anthropomorphized animals are believed to have been drawn during the 12th to the 13th centuries.
In modern times, giving human properties to inanimate objects is as common as Mickey Mouse, or, more locally, Anpanman.
But somewhere along the way, anthropomorphism took on a life quite unexpected: Now characters are being created to portray subway stations, a town--and even charcoal.
Representative of this trend are the characters from "Miracle Train," an anime that features a group of handsome men, each of whom represents a Tokyo subway station.
Each character has his own personality traits and back story that reflect the characteristic features and history of the stations and surrounding areas, along with other trivium.
The characters were created by the Miracle Train Seisaku (production) Project, a group of four women who work at an IT firm. One of the members, who is a railway fan, came up with the idea. She said she wanted to make everyone feel closer to train stations they use on a daily basis.
The group started posting manga and short stories on a website. An animated TV series based on the characters went on air in 2009 after an anime production company fell in love with the concept.
Before the anime was aired, train cars for the Toei Oedo Line were decorated with life-size decals featuring the anthropomorphic characters.
About 90 percent of "Miracle Train" fans are female, ranging from teenagers to those in their 40s. Some even organize tours on their own to visit the subway stations.
"I think that the project has been well-received because people can learn about the stations as they are escorted by the characters," said Miyuka Kidachi, a project member in charge of publicity.
A similar project is under way in Tottori Prefecture. A drama titled "Ashitamo Kokode" (Here again tomorrow) features a story revolving around a group of four handsome anthropomorphic male characters who represent different areas in the central part of the prefecture. Each character has its own personality traits based on the area they represent.
The civic group LOHAS Togo was commissioned by the Yurihama town office to produce 1,000 copies of a CD on the drama. They put the anime on sale in anime shops in Tokyo and bookstores in the prefecture in April.
Of them, 500 copies were sold, with many of the buyers being women in their teens to 30s.
"It made me want to visit the places, so I'm planning to go on a trip," a 21-year-old woman in Tokyo said.
The civic group is now planning to design personified characters based on Nijusseiki brand pears for the second installment of the project.
According to Yu Ito, a 36-year-old researcher at Kyoto International Manga Museum in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, personification is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
From karakasa obake (spirit of parasol) in ancient times to Anpanman, a cartoon character based on an anpan sweet bun, Japanese have been familiar with anthropomorphic characters based on animals and objects who act as humans.
But "the latest trend of personification is characterized by the fact that characters leave no traces of the forms upon which they are originally based and completely take on human forms," Ito said.
Ito added that this trend has been set by Bincho-tan and her friends--a group of cute girlish characters representing Japanese bincho charcoal first introduced over the Internet in or around 2004.
In 2003, an illustrator at Alchemist, a game publisher based in Tokyo's Koto Ward, conceived the idea for Bincho-tan. When he was playing with words, he thought of tan, a diminutive suffix originating from chan that is used to describe an endearing person. "Tan" also means charcoal in Japanese.
The illustrator then came up with illustrations of Bincho-tan and her friends, which were later posted on the company's Web site. The characters became wildly popular and were turned into a manga series.
The following year, the Minabegawa forestry cooperative in Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture, decided to use the characters as mascots for the organization. The town is home to Kishu binchotan charcoal producers.
They once organized a hands-on experience tour involving tree planting and charcoal making to celebrate the DVD release of the animated series.
Then, the organization took reservations for the tour of a maximum of 50 participants in just a matter of several minutes.
Anime fans who are mainly in their 20s continue to visit Minabe on weekends and holidays.
Friday, November 5, 2010
It's easy to trick-or-treat in Hiroo, where we live. You just look for the houses that have some Halloween decorations hanging over the door (like these bloody knives) and an outside light on.
The homes with Halloween spirit are few and far between, to be sure, but there were enough to keep the kids happy before we headed to a neighbor's house for a real Halloween-ey party.
First stop: the house next door
For Percy Jackson it was really all about the props anyway.
Batman with a full bag
Instructions for most brilliant party game:
Have all kids sit in a circle, legs crossed.
Hand out many balls of yarn.
Tell the kids with the yarn to take hold of one end and let the ball unravel around their own waists.
Once they have belted themselves with yarn, have them toss the balls back and forth to each other across the circle, cross-crossing and wrapping themselves up tighter and tighter, and creating a giant spider web that keeps them immobilized on the floor.
Hit the buffet and pour more wine.
Second-favorite party game: make a mummy!