Sony Screens Commercial

This is a cool Sony advert that’s been getting some airplay recently on Japanese TV.

According to the creative agency’s official website it was taken in one continuous shot and used over 200 screens.

[Via Tokyo Mango]

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Wrestling with Big Issues

This morning, a few minutes from home, we saw this:

sumo wrestlers practicing
These guys are in town practicing for the July Grand Tournament in Nagoya.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day”, I thought. But then I looked around and saw the general public completely unfazed and I realised that, in Japan, perhaps it is.

 

EDIT: In an even more surreal encounter, on Monday I saw two sumo wrestlers get into a lift at our local shopping mall. I wonder whether 10 persons or less still applies?

Uncrossable Crossing Closes – Nerds Get Emotional

Today is an historic day for Nagoya train nerds. The Atsuta Jingu Mae level crossing is permanently closing, and little wonder too. It crosses 8 tracks (4 JR tracks and 4 Meitetsu tracks) carrying a total of 1,300 freight and passenger trains per day. This means the crossing is open for an average of only 1 minute 14 seconds in every hour.

Other peculiarities that have train nerds foaming at the mouth are the pulley-operated rope barriers that are manually lowered and raised by station staff, and the island in the middle where one can end up marooned when both halves close at the same time.

Jingu Mae Crossing
Jingu-Mae Level Crossing. Source: This blog.

Kei Cars and 30km per litre

Since I seem to be on the theme of cars recently I have another automobile-related post for you today, this time at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Japan has a special category of light vehicles called kei-jidousha (軽自動車) that are cheap to own and operate. When I was previously living in Japan (before I had kids) I owned one of these. To give you an idea of its size, when sitting in the driver’s seat I could touch all four corners of the interior roof with my left hand! They are perfect for short commutes and as a daily runner.

To qualify as a Light Vehicle, cars must have an engine size no more than 660cc and maximum power of 47kW, as well as meet certain physical size restrictions. These small cars are identified by yellow number plates and qualify for lower stamp duty on purchase, lower highway tolls, lower road tax, lower insurance, and lower vehicle inspection fees (weight tax component). Being so small, they also result in lower human survival rates in crashes. As we were told in one of our orientation seminars when first arriving in Japan, “If you get a kei car, and you have a highway accident, don’t expect to be able to use your legs again.”

There is even a category of ute known as a Kei Truck. My parents-in-law use one of these midget utes around the farm.

Of course a huge advantage with Kei cars is that they are fuel misers. Suzuki are currently advertising a new model that achieves over 30km per litre of petrol. Our Camry back home would go about 7.7km by comparison. (Incidentally, I like the km/litre metric that is used in Japan to measure fuel consumption. It’s much easier to calculate running costs compared to Australia’s litres/100km metric.)

Kei Car
Japanese light motor vehicle.

The Sky Tree’s the Limit

Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree

A couple of weeks ago the Tokyo Sky Tree opened to the public. At 634m it is the tallest tower in the world. In a beautiful paradox the Sky Tree is a thing simultaneously with pinnacle and pointless.

The Japanese media’s infatuation with it has been nothing short of extraordinary. We’ve had TV programs on it’s perfect design, on how it was built, its LED lighting plan, the opinions of local residents and distant tourists, on the financial circumstances of its owner (Tobu Railways), on the Skytree-Shaped Food that is currently being sold all around Sumida Ward, and on the trouble being caused by bored youth hanging around at the tower’s foot and trampling on the new garden beds.

In the midst of this wide smorgasbord of televisual nonsense has been pervasive coverage of how the Sky Tree makes people feel. “The tower makes me smile”, one woman says. “It raises my hopes for Japan”, says another. “It makes me feel good about the future”. “It makes me think that Japan is really great”. The upper observatory costs a ridiculous $40 per adult but in typical Japanese style it has been fully-booked for weeks in advance.

In evidence that God has a sense of humour, on the opening day the observatory was shrouded in cloud. The honoured first guests enjoyed a view of perfect white, and then become stranded at the top as the elevator had to be suspended due to high winds.

I now agree with one of the aforementioned interviewees. “The tower makes me smile”.

Takayama

The main reason for the recent dearth of posts has been that we have been busy entertaining and guiding members of my family who came to Japan for a holiday.

Last week we packed the car and headed into the mountains of neighbouring Gifu Prefecture for a short break with them. We took the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway, which runs from Nagoya on the Pacific coast through the Japan Alps to Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast. This expressway is an incredible display of Japanese engineering. There are 54 tunnels along the route, the longest almost 11km in length. There are also numerous bridges spanning deep ravines, some with piers over 100m tall. The road itself tops out at 1,086m above sea level.

tunnel
One of the 54 tunnels on the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway

We stayed in Takayama – a picturesque and largely unspoiled traditional Japanese city of some 100,000 people. (Even the small cities aren’t all that small in Japan.) Takayama is a tourist mecca. It is often referred to in travel books as “Little Kyoto” because its narrow streets of traditional shops, temples and residences are similar to those that one can find in Kyoto, but Takayama is compact and easily traversed with a pair of legs and a small amount of physical stamina. Despite only having one of these two properties I enjoyed Takayama very much.

Takayama street
A sleepy street along the riverside in Takayama
boys in Takayama
Unusually cooperative with the parent-photographer.

takayama museum

The mountains of Gifu are onsen territory. (An onsen is a public bath supplied by a natural hot spring.) If you stay overnight in the region I highly recommend booking a hotel that has an onsen. That way you can enjoy bathing naked with strangers of the same sex and then creepily sit next to them at the breakfast table the following morning. Our hotel had a completely natural onsen – the water was not treated in any way, nor was it artificially heated. It included indoor and outdoor baths. Our party visited the hotel onsen every evening and most mornings too – they are a great way to relax and ease those muscle pains we all get from time to time. They also magically make beer taste better.

Takayama features daily morning markets with gnarled farmers selling lookalike gnarled vegetables. Right behind the markets is the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House which was in official use by the prefectural government right up until 1969. It has been beautifully restored and is now open to the public.

Some of our group visited the Hida Folk Village which features traditional steep thatched-roof houses once common in this area due to the volume of winter snowfall. Nicewife and I had already visited the UNESCO World Heritage site at Shirakawa-go which is the same kind of thing, so we gave it a miss this time.

government house
Part of the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House. Not a bad spot to be a public servant, provided you can deal with the occasional violent farmer’s revolt over excessive taxation.

On our final day Nicewife and I took the kids to the Hida Daishonyudo Caves. They’re a 30 minute drive east from the centre of Takayama. They were truly bizarre. Coloured lighting, piped “music box” melodies, rusting infrastructure, and loads of shinto idols. Every stalactite formation was classified as a god, and there were numerous small shrines including a bizarre fertility shrine at the furthest cave exit. If you decide to visit the caves, be sure to get a discount coupon from their advert in the local tourist brochures.

caves
Nature meets religion meets tacky cheese.

Convenient Conveniences

The Japanese are expert at taking pre-existing things and refining them until all inconveniences are eliminated.

The toilets at any modern Japanese shopping centre are a prime example of this. Imagine you’ve arrived on a rainy day, umbrella clutched under your arm. At the entrance to the mall you’ll find a machine that bags your umbrella, preventing it from dripping all over the floor as you walk about. Enter the male toilets and next to each urinal you’ll find a hook upon which to hang your now bagged umbrella, and a shelf above for your bag or briefcase. There’s nothing inherently clever about the existence of these two things, but the fact that someone thought to put them in those locations is very clever indeed. The urinal itself flushes automatically when you arrive, as if say, “I’m clean. I’m cool.” Do your business and step back and the urinal flushes automatically.

urinal

Does your business involve something more, ahem, substantial? Enter a cubicle and sit on electronic bliss. The lid raises at the touch of a button on the wall-mounted control panel. The toilet seat has been pre-warmed for your pooing pleasure. (By contrast, if you sit on a toilet seat in Australia to find that it is warm, it is never a good thing.) Use the built-in bidet to get that freakishly fresh feeling. Adjust the temperature, location and pressure of the water jet at will. Make a few mistakes with all those buttons and you’ll soon learn not to do so again. Use the in-toilet dryer to desiccate your derrière. Don’t worry if you forget to flush or close the lid. The toilet will do these menial tasks automatically on your behalf. That way you can pretend to care even though you don’t.

Rest assured that if you are pregnant, the toilet will know about this before you do, and kindly inform you of the fact. What better way to find out than being told by a toilet? I am reliably informed that ladies embarrassed about the sound of their natural bodily functions also get a special button on their toilets that plays a beautiful masking sound, such as the tweeting of birds. In Australian toilets the only tweeting you’ll get is on a smartphone Twitter client. Uncouth.

Do you have a toddler that needs to go? Use the provided child seat. Do you have a toddler that you need to restrain while you go? Use the “jail seat” provided inside the cubicle, where you can secure the toddler while you take care of business. Enjoy the convenience. Don’t think about “human rights”.

At the sink soap is dispensed at the touch of a button and instant warm water, heated to just the right temperature for the season, begins to flow as soon as you put your hands near the spout. An “air towel” blows excess water off your hands much faster than it would evaporate using a traditional hand dryer. It also takes off a layer of skin.

I enjoy the fact that conveniences in Japan actually live up to their name.

Small Boy Arrested In Front of Bullet Train

Small Boy and Bullet Train
Source: Nagoya Police Department

If you can read a Japanese date you’ll realise that this photo was taken back in February, when we spent a very enjoyable and appropriately geeky day at the Linear Railway Park – a new railway museum in Nagoya. If you’re visiting this part of Japan and have even a passing interest in trains (heh heh) I definitely recommend paying a visit. At ¥1000 a ticket it isn’t the cheapest day out, but you get plenty of trains for your money. If you’re lucky you might even get to try out the bullet train driving simulator.

Watch out for hardcore train geeks with huge cameras. They have little patience for mere mortals who obstruct the view of their precious trains!

Capsule Reconsider Your Choice of Hotel

A few weeks ago I went to Osaka to catch up with my friend from Takarazuka, Crazy K.

To save money we looked for a cheap hotel. Because Japan’s urban areas are some of the most densely populated in the world, the main way hoteliers can reduce their costs is to reduce your space. In the case of our particular hotel they reduced it to this:

Capsule Hotel
Our hotel "rooms". Believe it or not, these are the extra wide capsules - we paid $2 more for that little piece of relative luxury.

It was a bizarre mix of high-tech and high school. After checking in at reception we were given keys to our metal lockers where we could stash all of our stuff. We then refreshed ourselves in the communal baths, bought drinks and snacks from the onsite vending machines, watched TV in the 1980s communal lounge, and then retired to our $25 coffins to die sleep.

The capsules were actually surprisingly comfortable, and I would’ve slept quite well if I hadn’t foolishly consumed caffeinated coffee at 11pm, and if drunken salarymen hadn’t entered loudly at 3am triggering a half-asleep and justifiably grumpy capsule occupant to start shouting “Oi”, “Ooi”, “Ooooiiii”. How considerate.

The next morning I witnessed a quintessentially Japanese sight. A crumpled businessman emerged from his capsule, got dressed outside his high-school-style metal locker in a shirt, cufflinks and a fine business suit, and styled his hair for a power meeting, thereby transforming himself from a shrivelled drunk to a successful business professional in just 5 minutes. It was like I was witnessing the accelerated metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Well maybe not a butterfly… perhaps just some kind of ultra-efficient grey moth.

This is Japan.

Stripped-Down Shinto

Yesterday morning as the sun rose over Inazawa (the town neighbouring ours) in central Japan it was a crisp minus 3 degrees and there was unmelted snow lying in shady areas. Thousands of local men clearly thought, “What a beautiful day to dress in nothing but a loincloth and walk around for hours exposed to the elements as a participant in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri (Inazawa Naked Festival)”. I make this ridiculous claim only because yesterday I saw with my own eyes thousands of men dressed in nothing but loincloths walk around for hours in the chilly north wind, as willing participants in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri.

Small Group
It starts like this, with small groups of local men congregating outside of houses and community centres near their homes.

This is just one of a number of “naked ” festivals across Japan, which are said to have originated in the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).

Early in the afternoon, groups of local men in loincloths started to appear outside houses and community centres, drinking saké, chanting together, jogging on the spot, and generally looking cold and embarrassed. After spending some time cutting circuitous routes through the backstreets they then slowly converged at the entrance to Konomiya Shrine. By this time their bodies had warmed up due to an unusual combination of alcohol and exercise, and cold water was sprayed on them in order to prevent skin rash as the crowd of semi-naked men became increasingly thick and uncomfortably close.

This festival centres around one man – the Shin-okoto (literally “god man”), who is incidentally the only participant who is actually naked (apart from those unfortunate middle-aged men who could occasionally be seen having “wardrobe malfunctions” midway through the festivities). Shinto traditionalists believe that touching the Shin-okoko cleanses one of sin, evil and other general misfortune. I don’t know how much traction this gains amongst the majority of younger Japanese – who are basically superstitious secularists – but in Japan once something becomes a tradition the fact that it has become so is reason enough to continue to do it. Towards the end of the festival the Shin-otoko basically crowd-surfs his way up to a small door in the shrine building, in which, with the loss of any small amount of remaining dignity, he is involuntarily inserted.

Larger Crowd
Groups all converge on the route to Konomiya Shrine.

This isn’t moderately absurd. This is completely nuts.

Kounomiya Jinja
This is Konomiya Shrine - the final destination of the Shin-otoko. Notice the VERY SENSIBLE amount of winter clothes being worn by the spectators. A few hours later and one will have to fight for the air to breath is this arena.