Japanese Convinience

In one of the stories of the late genius science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, the main character needs crazy and exotic items to cast a spell. Bat wings, eyes of newt, etc, etc. Seemingly hard to find items, yet the character did not have any problems finding them. Why? Because he lived in Manhattan. You can find the most obscure, impossible to locate items in New York. Dried parasitic fungus that feeds on caterpillars? I had no trouble finding it.

A couple of days ago I made a happy discovery. It looks like Manhattan has it’s own chain of authentic Japanese “konbini” – convenience stores. When I visited Japan, I really liked konbinis. They have 7-Eleven, just like we do, but also Ministop, Lawson, Sunkus and FamilyMart.

So, what’s different in a Japanese konbini? The variety and quality of junk food that they sell is a lot better. They are stocked with a humongous variety of snacks. Dozens of types of dried squid and fish for beer, Japanese sweets, nuts, edamame, sashimi quality fish, japanese pickles like umeboshi. The variety of soft drinks and genki drinks. They also have Japanese shampoos and skincare products. In short, they are stuffed with Japanese goodness of overpowering variety.

I’ve been to SAM BOK store at 127 West 43rd Street before. It was nice but not the same as the real Japanese kombini. Also there’s a big Chinese supermarket in my are which has a lot of Japanese stuff. Not the same either. But then I found JAS MART. It even has 3 locations!

35 St. Marks Place, (Bet 2nd & 3rd Ave), NYC
212-420-6370
Sun – Thur: 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM
Fri & Sat: 11:00 AM – 12:00 AM

34 East 23rd Street, (Bet Park & Madison Ave), NYC
212-387-8882
Mon – Fri: 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Sat & Sun: 10:00 AM – 9:00 PM

2847 Broadway, (Bet 110th & 111th St), NYC
212-866-4780
Mon – Sun: 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM

They even have genki drinks and Coffee Boss coffe! I’ve been to the one on 23rd street and promptly loaded myself up with goodies. Unagi eel, unagi sauce, roasted rice tea, sencha tea, several types of dried ika and fish, umeboshi, edamame. It’s a little expensive, but hey – beats buying tickets to Japan.

Coffee Boss is a brand of Japanese canned coffee drinks with a J. R. “Bob” Dobbs-look alike mascot. They are sold in Japanese style soda machines which look rather different from the US Coke/Pepsi machines. They can serve the cans hot or cold. I wonder why somebody doesn’t bring some of these to Manhattan – it looks like the design of soda machines hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years!

Pocari Sweat is a brand of Japanese sports drink, and despite the name rather tasty I might add. Notice the recycling can next to the machine – apparently the Japanese etiquette requires you to finish drinking your soft drinks next to the machine and not walking around with them. Almost every machine sold unsweetened green tea, in many cases Coke or Pepsi-branded.

“Dear Japanese Newspeople”

“No news is good news” – that’s what one of the old Usenet newsreaders used to say when there weren’t any new articles to read in your subscriptions. Is that a coincidence that CNN, one of the two evil companies that employs Lord Vader himself as its mouthpiece, is so obsessed with violent, fiery death? Cartoonist Jeffery Rowland even felt that he needed a special new word coined for this phenomenon.

CNN.com is a news site that I frequently visit, mostly because the url is so much nicer than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is superior in all regards to CNN. As far as news goes, I am mostly interested in what’s happening in five countries: the US, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Israel and Japan. Why Turkmenistan? Because of the Great Serdar, of course. In any case, not many interesting things happen in Canada or the UK, and I could not care less for France, Germany and the rest of the Snootyland. Communist China and North Korea do not let out any interesting news and news from the entire African continent are usually too depressing.

Japan, on the other hand, is very close to my heart. Recently I found an outstanding English language Japanese news source, MSN Mainichi Daily News. There’s even an RSS feed for it.

What’s different in Japanese news? Well, first of all there’s a lot more sex-related news. American news are heavy on violence, but light on sex. MSN Mainichi Daily News are full of headlines very much in the spirit of one famous hacker’s “Dear Japanese People” posts.

Right now, the headlines are full of stories about a 57 year old fortune teller living with a “harem” of “about 10 women.” An older popular news story featured an embezzling accountant who spent stolen money on 17 mistresses.

Swimwear photo specials are frequent and highly detailed. Booth bunnies also get photo coverage. Sadly, Japan Swimsuit Association does not have its own website.

There’s some coverage about “maid cafes” for “otaku” in Akihabara (you can see Kitya’s post for photos.

Unhealthy Japanese obsession with schoolgirls is clearly present in the news: not a day goes by when there isn’t a schoolgirl sex-related article on Mainichi. Here’s a typical one:

“A man who licked the tongues of more than 30 young girls after making them open their mouths, telling them he was checking for tooth decay, has been arrested, police said”.

It gets more complicated than that:

“The two 18-year-old, third-year high school girls, whose names are being withheld under the Juvenile Law, threatened on Dec. 29 to reveal that the 19-year-old private 1st class had sex with one of them unless he handed over 2 million yen, local police said.

They forced a 21-year-old lance corporal who was accompanying the private to withdraw 400,000 yen from an automatic teller machine at a convenience store in Sasebo and received the money from him.

The girls subsequently demanded 1.6 million yen from the GSDF soldiers. However, the soldiers consulted police, who arrested the two girls.

A fisherman and two other men were earlier arrested for giving the girls advice on how to extort money from the victim.”

US military men are frequently in the news for murder, rape, tresspassing, and robbery. This is not good, and mostly unreported here, in the US.

Japanese news agencies are no stranger to violence. A particularly unsettling trend that I noticed is an abundance of stories about family violence in Japan: “Man stabbed parents because they wouldn’t drink his miso soup“, “Man arrested for leaving bed-ridden, elderly mother to die“, “Woman nabbed for fatally kicking boyfriend“. It gets weirder, too: “Jobless man sets fire to futon in house after mom refuses to buy him dolls.” Overall, all these stories feature jobless people.

Violent (“Homeless man stabs abusive youth in stomach“) and non-violent homeless people (“Homeless man can officially register a public park where he lives as his residence, a court has said“) are often in the news.

We all think about how safe life in Japan is, but according to the news that I see, if the jobless, the homeless and the US servicemen won’t get you, train crashes, heavy snow, natural gas or sticky rice cakes will: “4 die after train blown off tracks in Yamagata“, “Elderly woman trapped in heavy snow freezes to death“, “Natural gas kills mother and children at hot spring“, “4 Kanto residents choke to death on sticky rice cakes“.

All those people got killed in heavy snow, yet mount Fuji was missing it’s snow cap last year. Strange.

The conflict of Japanese whalers and Greenpeace activists gets a lot of coverage: for some reason I’ve never seen this picture of a Greenpeace dude nearly harpooned to death anywhere else.

Two Japan-specific stories that don’t get much play in the US news is the Livedoor scandal and the badly constructed “twin” condo buildings. The Livedoor news get funny sometimes: “Convenience store chain am/pm Japan has decided to pull an energy drink developed by former Livedoor President Takafumi Horie off its shelves because it doesn’t want to sell items associated with scandal-tainted people, it has been learned“.

New Year’s cards (“nengajo“) are apparently a very serious business in Japan. From what I understand, they are supposed to be delivered exactly on January 1st. There was a flurry of news items like “Feces in 2 mailboxes stain 140 New Year cards“, “Post office to redeliver New Year’s postcards that arrived too early“, “Post office in Osaka to deliver 35 New Year’s cards a year late“. Big whoop. By the way, while we are on the subject, check out Japanese New Year’s prints by master woodblock printmaker David Bull.

There’s a section called “WaiWai“(with its own RSS feed). I am not sure what it means, as Wikipedia tells me that “Wai Wai” is a noodle snack.

The headline writers for Mainichi are prone to using puns and old-fashioned American slang, although not always very smoothly: they really overuse the words “nab”, “pinch”, “clink” (prison). Sometimes it feels like you are reading an old detective story.

This quote also is kind of unsettling:

Foreign sex workers get dirty digging for Japanese roots: “Gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but Japan’s not-so-gentle men seem to, as well, sparking a rapid increase in the number of South American sex workers with more yam than Yamato running through their veins to claim Japanese heritage, according to Spa!”

“More yam than Yamato”? What the hell?

Deadprogrammer Does Japan: Morning Set

Let’s face it, my week and a half trip to Japan was a major highlight of my miserable cubicle existence, and a major picture taking opportunity. In fact, it wore out my old camera. Still, I wrote up maybe a tenth of what I wanted to write about. Part III of the extensive posts still sits unfinished somewhere on my laptop. Writing long articles kind of wore me out, so I’ll try my hand at small Scobel-esque little bunny poop postlets focusing on tiny aspects of my Japanese experience.

Any good Japanese guidebook will tell you that food is very expensive in Japan with one major exception: morning sets. Morning set (I think it’s pronounced “morningu setu” or something like that) is a cheap breakfast menu. The average price is about 500 – 600 yen, or about $5. Paying for breakfast with a single silvery coin is rather cool.

As we all know, Japan is all about dainty stuff. Morning sets are chock full of kawaii. Your coffee is served in a nice cup, you get a cute little salad, a small scoop of potato salad, a croissant, a cup of yogurt with floating bits of fruit. Notice the cutest little stirrer-spoon.

Although Japanese-style morning set exist, Western ones are more popular. Me and my wife had this particular breakfast in a little French-themed cafe right near our hotel. There was Mozart piped in from the speakers, but friendly service was most un-French.

Here’s an American-style morning set. A tiny cute little omelet, a tiny cute little piece of bacon and the most manly toast. Morning set toast is super thick, reaching a few inches in cross section.

The interesting part is that Western-style morning sets are way more exotic and Japanese in nature than the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, miso soup and fried fish. Beware of Western-style restaurants in Japan – they often suck, but definitely do not eat breakfast in hotel restaurants, but go for morning sets outside.

I added my photos with a Flickr tag “morningset“. Maybe the collection will grow.


Ad:
I thought about including a nice Japanese guidebook in this ad, but that’s boring. Katamari Damacy aka Katamari Damashii on the other hand is the most amazing weird Japanese video game. You control a tiny little alien who is rolling a ball called “katamari” around various settings. Objects stick to katamari, making it bigger and bigger, allowing you to pick up larger and larger objects. You’d be surprized at how addictive this is.

Wikipedia explains the meaning of the name: “Katamari means “clump”, Damashii is the rendaku form of tamashii (soul or spirit). Therefore, the whole phrase approximates to “clump spirit,” or, somewhat more loosely, “clump of soul.” It might also be considered a pun — dama means ball while shii can be translated as circumference, and the two kanji that form the name look nearly alike in a kind of visual alliteration.”

The objects that stick to katamari range from pencils and erasers, to takoyaki to giant squids and fishing boats. When I had my first ever takoyaki in Japan, all I could think about was this game.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan or Sakura in Partial Bloom Part II

Part II : Chuck Garabedian sez : “Ya gotta squeeze every penny”

My wife booked our tickets though go-today.com, thriftily opting for the cheapest tickets that do not specify the airline prior to purchase. I was expecting the horrors of Aeroflot, or even worse, flying under the 5-headed eagle flag of Turkmenistan Airlines. On a crop duster or something. But we were pleasantly surprised to become proud holders of All Nippon Airways tickets. And that meant flying on a 747-400 without one of those Pokemon or Hello Kitty paint jobs, but with 4 classes of seats, on demand video monitors in all of them, nice meals and snacks, ultra clean bathrooms, and 20% more bowing.

A flight from JFK to Narita Airport takes about 14 hours non-stop. I found it to be no worse than an extra long day in a cubicle. Except instead of working I read, watched free movies (they had The Incredibles!) ate tasty meals and wondered if one could learn to smile professionally like the Japanese stewardesses. Oh, and I took a nice picture of a circular rainbow. Unfortunately I missed seeing the fish-like Sakhalin Island where my father spent a part of his childhood and my mother earned her college degree. I hope one day I’ll visit it.

Now for some photos (there will be more interesting ones in the next post). Make your own Google maps with Keyhole technology. The whole thing looks like a motherboard, doesn’t it? For some reason Japanese like to paint their towers in red and white.

In stark contrast to the heavily industrial area above, Japan is full of agricultural areas filled with rice paddies that glisten in the sun. I was gonna say like the steel of a samurai’s sword, but did not.

In Narita I came into my first contact with the wonders of Japanese wending machines. My first purchases on the Japanese soil were a $30 Hello Kitty phone card (that was way too much, a $10 one would do, besides they sell them everywhere) and a bottle of a sports drink called “Pocari Sweat”. As it turns out many Japanese products and businesses have strange, but somewhat relevant Engrish names. Overall the vending machines in Japan are way nicer that the ones in the States. I’ll write about them later, but for now I present you with the picture of a small battery of rectangular (or should I say parallelepipedal) sports drink bottles that accumulated on the windowsill of our hotel room.

Go-today.com deal hooked us up with 5 nights in Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It’s a huge complex of a hotel located just next to a major Japan Rail station. Narita express as well as shinkansen trains stop there too. Just like ANA’s jumbo jet, the hotel seems to tailored to serve a number of different classes of customers. There’s the Executive Tower, Main Tower, New Tower and Annex Tower. We got a room in the Annex Tower which is probably like the Fiesta Deck. Still in the good old tradition of the 3rd class on a pre-war cruise ship, the room was tiny, but well designed, clean, and had very nice extras not usually found in American hotels such as yucatas, toothbrushes and razors in the “little shampoo and crap” kit and a washlet in the bathroom.

Japan is one of the last true bastions of smoking, so we could not get a non-smoking room. There was a smell of cigarettes in the air, but fortunately the windows were openable (and with a great view, including a skyscraper with a huge Canon logo) and after a short airing the room was livable. There was no hardwired Ethernet and during my stay I only figured out how to get the key to the wireless network only at the very end (you need to go to the Yahoo! cafe, fill out some paperwork, buy a drink there and ask for the access point password).

Overall it seems that Japanese businesses often treat coach class customers better than American businesses treat their business class and often first class.

Deadprogrammer Visits Japan or Sakura in Partial Bloom Part I

Part I : The Roots Of Russian Japanophilia

What are the roots of Russian (I should really be saying “Russian-speaking Generation X”, but that would be too long, wouldn’t it?) Japanophilia? Honestly I have no idea, but the fact is that it plays an important role in the huge number of high quality Sushi restaurants in Brooklyn, tremendous popularity of Japanese themed blogs in the Russian-speaking Livejournal community and the popularity of Erast Fandorin Mysteries.

Kitya, the author of the above mentioned outstanding blog, whom I met in Tokyo, thinks that the reason is probably the same as with the US Japanophilia – anime cartoons. I have a different theory. Before the first anime shown in the USSR,Flying Ghost Ship, made it’s appearance, I was already fascinated with Japan. The reason for that was the excellent book called “Branch of Sakura” that I found in my dad’s library. As it turns out, 30 years later the author of the book, journalist Vsevolod Ovchinnikov was invited back to Japan to write a second installment of the book. Ovchinnikov’s writing still has the same lucidity, simplicity and attention to detail. I think that he is one of the major reasons why Soviet Generation X is so interested in everything Japanese.

Some time during Perestroika there was a week of Japanese TV in USSR. They showed the most amazing stuff : how they make Japanese water sharpening stones (I own a set these days) and how a skillful sharpening master can sharpen a carpenter’s plane so that he could make a micron thick shaving with it. They’ve shown how chasen whisks (I have one) used in a tea ceremony are made by splitting bamboo by hand. They’ve shown a fisherman who could tell exactly how many trouts his net was catching and a master bamboo fishing rod maker. They’ve shown an awesome game show called Takeshi’s Castle. Oh, how I wish someone would make a DVD of that show! There was the usual exotic stuff like Sumo wrestling, Sakura festivals as well more unusual stuff such as a few clips of Japanese reporters walking around Moscow (a part of which I described earlier.

Before coming to America I thought that there must be hundreds of channels on TV there, and specifically a few that showed only cartoons (as opposed to 3 or 4 channels in the USSR with one to two old cartoons shown per day). My expectations were overly optimistic as the Cartoon channel came into existence significantly later. Now I hope and pray that there will be a channel of Japanese TV with English subtitles, Sumo, news, Abarenbo Shogun and other Chambara. And Takeshi’s Castle reruns. Ah, one can only dream. For now all I have is the couple of hours of Japanese shows on Fujisankei Lifestyle which airs for a couple of hours. Actually while writing this post I learned that there is a Japanese channel on the Dish network, but it’s $25 a month.

I never anywhere abroad since I came to the US and me and my wife did not have a decent vacation in years. So I decided to pleasantly surprise my wife, who knows and tolerates my extreme hate of traveling, and proposed that we have a vacation in Japan. Thanks to her diligent planning we had an amazing 10 day trip to Japan, spending 6 days in Kyoto and 4 days in Tokyo.

My camera died in Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district. But still me and my wife managed to take about 2500 pictures. I took a lot of 3d pictures. 3d picture technology is very simple : I have a lens that takes two slightly offset pictures at the same time. To view the image you can either learn a special technique and really, really strain your eyes or obtain a rather simple viewer of which there are many varieties, some very cheap, some a bit more expensive and some are pretty expensive. I find that the cheap viewer made by the same company that makes the lens that I use work very well.

[update] : due to the lack of interest there won’t be many 3d pictures in my posts.

[update] Ok, I did get one request for a 3d viewer. So maybe someone out there cares. So if you want one, send me your postal address to

Where in the World is Deadprogrammer?

I am in Kyoto, Japan, with my wife, on a vacation of a lifetime. We are spending two more nights in a wonderful ryokan here, and then one more night in Tokyo. There are 4.43 gigabytes of pictures in my Tablet PC, I really hope Windows XP / Acer hardware is not going to eat them before I get them into a more secure location. My Canon EOS 300D broke (the poor thing does not power up at all even though the battery is ok), so I am down to my trusty Canon Powershot G2.

Meanwhile, enjoy this picture of a rainbow as seen from an airplane. Yes, it is circular.

P.S. Right, I forgot that it’s April Fool’s today. But I am actually in Japan, this is not a joke. I wish I’d have though of something witty, but it’s a bit too late now.