Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Karaoke Boxes: Destroying the Myth of the Quiet, Shy Japanese

Amongst the hundreds of Japanese words which have made it into the Oxford English dictionary many remain unfamiliar to the average Brit - think hikikomori, karōshi, and otaku for example. Karaoke, though, is familar to absolutely everyone and some even know that the word comes from kara (meaning empty - the same kara as in kara-te or empty hand) and an abbreviation for "orchestra" (ōkesutora in Japanese). One interesting thing is how the pronunciation changes in English: mysteriously the Japanese ke and ka sounds often morph into a ki sound in English, so karaoke is typically pronounced kari-oki (just like kara-te is often pronounced karati by English speakers). It is not only the pronunciation that is different though: karaoke is a completely different cultural activity in Japan, one that takes place in a private sound-proof karaoke box with friends (or colleagues) not a public space in front of strangers as in the UK. Karaoke has lost some of its popularity in recent years: from a peak for around 58m customers and almost 15,000 outlets in 1995, 2016 saw that fall to 47m and 9,484 with one reason being the rise in solo (hitori) karaoke.

Last week saw a night out with friends to one of the ubiquitous karaoke boxes which are generally clustered around train stations in Japan. This reflects the fact that they are a cheap (and warm) place to stay if you've missed your last train (most karaoke boxes close around the time of the first train). There are various chains but the biggest is Big Echo and like many other places this offers a variety of differently decorated rooms, food, percussion instruments, wi-fi, DVD recording, and even cosplay. We paid around \1500 (£10/$14) per person which included free non-alcoholic drinks from a self-service drinks bar and unlimited time, something of a bargain. 

When I first came to Japan, you had to leaf through thick books of songs and then enter the number directly into the machine, but now you simply search and enter a song or artist name (or just a keyword) into an ipad like device (pictured) and you're good to go. There's plenty of English songs too - tens of thousands of songs in fact. At the end of a song you get a kcal score which is apparently the amount of energy estimated to have been used (though for us this seemed totally random!). Japanese friends may ask you to sing your "Number 18" (juhachi-ban =十八番) meaning the song you sing best, so make sure you have one ready! The expression "Number 18" apparently has its roots in kabuki.

A unique and unforgettable feature of Japanese-style karaoke are the videos that play as you sing along. A few songs do have the official video playing but most of the time you will get some terribly corny C-movie-type video playing that (very very) loosely corresponds to the song theme. These videos more often that not seem to be set in the UK and feature "actors" who appear to be randomly recruited passers-by. The fact that there must be a whole cottage industry somewhere that creates plot lines and recruits "actors" for these videos is one of the ongoing mysteries of life in Japan. Nevertheless, the videos add to the whole karaoke experience, an experience which sees normally quiet, shy friends and colleagues transform into screaming frenzied rock 'n' roll stars (usually helped by a beer or three). Vive le rock!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Tokyo Skytree: The World's Tallest Tower

Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), located in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, had a shaky start when it opened in 2012, failing to meet initial visitor targets after shutdowns due to bad weather (wind!) and expensive pricing. However, in recent years it has gone from strength to strength and numbers are expected to top 30 million very soon. This doesn't include visitors to Tokyo Skytree town (Solamachi =ソラマチ) a hugely popular commercial complex at the base of the tower full of restaurants, shops, concert spaces, an aquarium, a planetarium, and (at the moment) an ice-rink! See the floor plan here.

The Skytree, at 634 metres, is currently the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world and the second tallest structure, though is not on the list of tallest buildings because it fails to meet the condition of having "continuously occupiable floors." The height itself is well known by most Japanese because the numbers 6, 3, and 4 can be read "mu", "sa", and "shi" the name of the ancient province that includes modern day Tokyo. Ticket prices depend on how high you want to go: it'll cost you ¥2,060 to go up to the Tenbo Deck (340-350m) and another ¥1,030 to go all the way to the Tenbo Galleria (Tenbō Kairō=展望回廊) at between 445-450m. At the moment there is a special asa-wari (朝割) or morning discount deal for weekdays from 8:00 to 9:30am (but these need to be bought in advance).

The lifts are the fastest large capacity lifts in Japan at 600m/minute which will get you to the Tenbo Deck in 50 seconds! Be warned though that you may have to queue a while - however a fast track ticket is available (at a premium price). But if you want to save some money, there is an alternative: the observatory at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku is not quite as high but you can still see Mount Fuji on a sunny day - and best of all it's free!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Valentine's Day Japanese Style: Friendship, Obligation, or Love?

One of my very first posts when the blog started last March introduced White Day, the day when men give gifts to women as a thank-you for the gifts they received today, Valentine's Day. Valentines Day in Japan, in contrast to the UK, is an exclusively one-way affair, with women giving chocolate to men. In that earlier post, I explained that there are three kinds of Valentine gifts: (1) tomo (friend) choco typically exchanged by schoolgirls and often handmade,  (2) giri (obligation) choco usually given to co-workers in an office or perhaps to a teacher as a sign of thanks - or just because everyone else is doing it - and the much rarer (3) honmei (true feeling) choco given with romantic intent.

This year there have been a couple of interesting advertising moves. One is encouraging people to buy chocolates as a treat or reward for themselves (watashi ni gohōbi o =私にご褒美を). The second, perhaps related development, was Belgium chocolate company Godiva's full page newspaper ad calling on Japanese (women) to stop buying giri choco (Nihon wa giri choco o yameyō =日本は義理チョコをやめよう). The text focuses on the stress giri choco causes women who "have to spend mental energy and money" on buying chocolates for all their male colleagues "for the sake of smooth relations at work."

It's going to be difficult to change ingrained social habits, especially considering the important place giri (social obligation or duty) has in Japanese society, though some bosses have reportedly been telling their subordinates to stop the giri choco practice. In contrast, however, tomo choco seems to be going from strength to strength. As explained above, in contrast to the lack of "pure feelings" (to quote Godiva) typical of the commercial giri choco, tomo choco is more a labour of love, a platonic gesture celebrating friendship by giving (usually) hand-made (te-zukuri =手作り) customised chocolates to friends. At the moment, our kitchen is filled with boxes of Oreos, white Ghana bars (a popular brand of creamy chocolate), and packs of cream cheese which apparently will soon miraculously transform into 120 Cookies and Cream Truffle balls (recipe here). These will be carefully placed in individual decorated bags (available from any ¥100 shop at this time of year) and given out to friends at school on the day. In return they will bring back a mountain of the most varied hand-made cookies and chocolates you can imagine, carefully eaten over the next few weeks (and rarely shared with parents!).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Keeping Warm in Winter: Musical Kerosene Trucks and Tragic Conflagrations

Most of the snow from the record snowfall in Tokyo has now gone, though other parts of the country are still struggling. Prefectures along the Sea of Japan have experienced very heavy snow, resulting in ten deaths and many more injuries since February 4th; 1500 cars were stranded in Fukui, some 200 miles west of Tokyo, while the village of Okura in Yamagata had an unbelievable 4.36 meters of snow. But even without snow, temperatures in Tokyo have been freezing, regularly dropping below zero, resulting in electricity demand pushing capacity to the limit. This is a little surprising given that one of the main sources of heat in winter for many Japanese - particularly less well-off Japanese living in houses rather than apartments - is kerosene (paraffin) known as tōyu(灯油).

Kerosene Truck: Note the kanji ki (危) meaning danger
Walking around the neighbourhood in winter one will typically see red plastic jerry cans placed in front of the gate or door (pictured). These are known as pori-tanku (ポリタンク) or tōyu-kan (灯油缶)in Japanese. These cans are waiting for the kerosene truck to come around, and the driver will stop and fill the tank and then ring the bell for payment. A standard 18 litre can costs ¥1,580 (£10/$14) where I live and the capacity of a regular kerosene fan heater is 5 litres. Given that one heater is typically able to heat a 15mᒾ or 10 (畳) tatami-mat room - yes, Japanese rooms are measured in terms of the number of tatami mats - this proves to be very economical. The trucks incidentally play a catchy little tune to alert people to their presence. The one in the video below is playing the rather melancholy "Tsuki no Sabaku" (月の砂漠) - "Moon Desert"? - but this varies by neighbourhood and region: the video here shows a truck in Kawasaki playing "Bonfire" (焚火), which, given the discussion below, is perhaps not the best choice.

I remember being taken aback when I first arrived in chilly Yamagata to find that my source of heating in technologically advanced Japan would be kerosene. One problem is the smell - kerosene releases dangerous fumes so the instructions on the side of my heater told me to open the window every hour or so to let the fumes out! This meant that leaving the heater on all night was a definite no-no (at least if I wanted to wake up alive). A second problem is that kerosene is obviously highly flammable and transferring the fuel from the jerry can to the smaller tank (there is a pump for this - see picture) is asking for trouble, especially in a Japanese style wooden house with tatami straw mat flooring. Indeed, every winter there are horror stories of houses burning down; just last week, 11 people were killed in a fire at a low-rent residence for the elderly in Hokkaido. Of the four things Japanese are said to be most fearful of - earthquakes, lightning, fire, and fathers (地震・雷・火事・親父) - in a rapidly ageing society in which dementia is a growing problem, fire could be said to be the most fearsome of all.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Throwing Beans and Driving off Demons: Setsubun

Setsubun (節分), better known as "bean-throwing day" is a popular festival held the day before the beginning of spring (Risshun=立春) in the old lunar calendar named because it marks the division (分) between seasons (節). This year, Setsubun is on February 3rd with Risshun on February 4th. At this time of the year, supermarkets feature displays selling pan-roasted beans (iri-mame =煎り豆), specifically soybeans (daizu = 大豆) - labelled as "lucky beans" or fuku-mame (福豆) - together with ogre or demon masks (oni no men = 鬼の面).

Supermarket flyer promoting Setsubun
The idea is to throw beans (mame-maki=豆撒き) at someone wearing the ogre mask while chanting "Out with Demons! In with Fortune!" (oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi! =鬼は外!福は内!). The beans, which demons supposedly hate, will drive out evil, purify the home, and bring good fortune. Additionally, eating the same number of beans as your age is said to bring good health. In a twist on the regular bean-throwing custom, temples and shrines around Japan often hold Setsubun festivals (節分祭) where the priests - or at famous shrines a celebrity, especially a sumo wrestler - throw beans and other prizes/gifts to the crowd who excitedly try to catch them for luck. See here for a video of the Setsubun festival at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa which attracts crowds of over 100,000 annually. 

Fuku-mame are advertised as rich in protein (tanpakushitsu =たんぱく質) and dietary fibre (shokumotsu sen'i=食物繊維) but in actual fact are not particularly tasty. Fortunately, there is a far more delicious snack popularly sold and eaten on Setsubun - a special giant sushi/meat/vegetable roll known as ehō-maki (恵方巻き) stuffed full of seven ingredients (after the Seven Deities of Good Fortune or shichi fuku jin =七福神). Traditionally, you are supposed to eat these in silence while facing a particular "lucky" or favourable direction (hōgaku =方角) all the while making a wish for the year. Interestingly, this direction, like the date itself, changes ever year; this year it is apparently SSE (in comparison, 2015 was WSW and 2016 SSE!). The silence thing never seems to last long in our household but we do invariably have ehō-maki from the supermarket or convenience store for dinner on Setsubun night. As a rather sad aside, stores tend to over stock ehōmaki and afterwards these are thrown out and end up as pig feed, one example of the giant food waste problem in Japan. Mottainai!
A selection of special ehō-maki rolls lined up in a local convenience store for Setsubun
The special giant sushi/meat/vegetable roll known as ehō-maki (恵方巻き) on sale in a 7-11 store