Soylent peas

At least you know they’re all natural. As long as you are.


What do YOU want from beer?

I have noticed an interesting trend in Japanese beer advertising of late. I submit these photos as evidence:

Guy on the right: having a good time with some friends.

Guy on the left: passing a kidney stone.

Girl on the right: rather elegantly enjoying a beer.

Guy on the left:  has just come to the horrific realisation that it’s not beer.

What does it all mean?  Is this some new-age marketing strategy that I’m not aware of?  Does advertising that their products may hurt you actually work?  So many questions…

The embodiment of man in bright yellow

He immediately arrested my attention on the streets of the Ginza. His bright yellow body suit and plastic sunflowers demanded it. The sign he held might have promised the glories of superior pensions plans. At least, that’s what the only two characters I could read said.

My poor attempts at literacy caught his eye. He began his dance: the dance of the huckster, timeless, though with his own unique twist of quirk. He proudly pointed this way and that, saluting his potential customers. He humbly bowed.

But as he rose from his bow, for just a second, the thin gossamer of his exuberance was revealed as it snagged on the smallest jutting edge of his jagged self-doubt. I caught something imploring from behind those steel rimmed frames; a crystalline moment of self-realisation in the agitation of the swirling crowds.

Although we couldn’t hear each other, or for that matter even speak a common tongue, his look spoke for him: “Is this really it? The way my story will end?”.

My look replied: “Yes. You are wearing a yellow bodysuit crowned with with a fluffy white star, holding a placard that might possibly be selling pensions plans, or possibly lawyer services. You are doomed.”

“Right then”, he said, and started his dance for the next passerby.

Why aren’t all my realities augmented?

This weekend just gone, I went on a Sunday afternoon jaunt into the Ginza, the most expensive shopping district in the currently fourth most expensive city in the world. More on that later, though! One of the most interesting shops in the Ginza is the Sony Store.

Why is it so interesting? Having lots of high-end, overpriced electronics kit is a start. But, the most interesting thing I found there wasn’t something I could buy:

According to my sources (ref: the Internet), this is my first brush with a simple example of augmented reality: a 3D map of the Sony building.

Grab a card coded to your language from the stand, hold it under the camera, and you can see a 3D wireframe model of the Sony building overlaid on top of the card. If you move and tilt the card, the building tilts with you. You can spin it around, and the virtual object moves with it.

When information shows up on the screen, you press “buttons” on the card itself to navigate through menus:

I was just fascinated by this, and eventually had to drag myself away to see other parts of the building. The twisting motions you can make with the card are a bit limited – it would be nice if you could zoom, or if the “buttons” had some kind of tactile feedback with raised ridges on the card. At any rate, I guess this is a technology demo designed to impress, and it certainly worked on me.

Oh yes, and there was plenty of other gadgetry of course! There’s more from the Sony Building in the gallery (try the slideshow), complete with mysterious white, round Sony TV devices, ultra-portable computers, elegant compact PCs designed for cluttered Tokyo apartments, and of course, samurai pirates on TV.

I left my eardrums in Shinjuku

Shinjuku is one of the liveliest places in Tokyo, and probably the world. At night, in amongst the dazzling brilliance of the neon signs and the smoky claustrophobia of the izakayas (drinking places), it positively crackles with energy. And at its epicentre: this guy.

His objectives, as far as I could tell, were to:

  • Look crazy and androgynous. Check.
  • Have crazy hair. Check.
  • Range his voice across four octaves, one and a half of which he could actually form notes in. Check.
  • Have some sort of simulated seizure during the 180 BPM hardcore nu-rock synth-guitar synthesizer solos:


He would accompany his backing music in the traditional karaoke style, but sans words, since such words do not yet exist. At the end of each song, he would take a big belt from the Coke bottle sitting behind him, probably to make sure his emanations were suitably carbonated. Then, another song would start. At least, I wasn’t sure if it was another song, or there was just one song he really liked a lot.

During each piece, he would gracefully glide through his full gamut, ranging from catlike wailing to guttural howling. Perhaps owing in part to this, he could really draw a crowd, who all seemed to be at least as fascinated and horrified as me:

It’s important to note how much distance they’re keeping. And those girls sitting close? One of them is wearing a surgical mask. Smart.

At the end of his set, he triumphantly toured the crowd, stopping to pose for photographs with everyone and hand out pamphlets. As he got near, I was going to ask him for a photo, but he sailed right past, pretending not to notice me. Perhaps he thought I looked a bit odd.

Just like a chocolate milkshake, only I can’t read it

I’m sure you’d all like to know that I’m eating healthily over here:

They’re not quite Coco Pops – they’re “Coco’s Chokowa”. As far as I can tell, “choko”, handily, is “chocolate”, but I haven’t yet worked out what that “wa” at the end is for.

The other interesting point this box shows is the Japanese fascination for baseball. Baseball is huge here. You often see boys throwing a baseball around on the backstreets, or like the guy I passed at the shops today practicing his pitching motion during a few idle moments.

In a move that most Western companies would kill for, baseball teams in the Japanese major league are often named for their corporate owners, like the Tokyo Yakult Swallows (the ones who make the citrus-y milky health drinks) or the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (a huge Japanese mobile phone company).

I haven’t yet watched more than a few minutes of baseball in electronics stores, since I am bereft of television still.  So, I currently can’t make a good comparison between baseball and Australian games, but everyone is still amazed when I explain “Cricket: The Game That Takes Fives Days To Play”.

The rock gods descend from Olympus

There was a bridge I always knew I would have to cross at some point in Japan. I’ve held out for just over two months, but the moment arrived on the weekend. I have now karaoke’d.

I’m not really a singing kinda guy, but from all accounts here, it’s not so much about being good – rather, it’s about having a go. Karaoke is huge in Japan, the first clue being that it’s a Japanese word. Literally translated it means “because you might sound much better after two pints” (maybe).

You can’t go far without seeing signs about karaoke places plastered everywhere. One of the most visible chains is Big Echo – just about everywhere I’ve been in Tokyo so far has one of these in easy walking distance. Apparently, they’re also a popular place to stay until sunrise if you have the misfortune of missing the last train and don’t want to fork out for a massive cab fare.

There’s one big factor that saved me from my karaoke nightmare imaginings. In many of the popular karaoke places in Japan, you’re not performing in front of a big room of strangers. Instead, you have a small, private room with just you, your friends and someone who pops in occasionally to serve drinks. The other thing that made it less terrifying is that everybody usually joined in with all the songs they knew, so the person with the microphone was just the nominal band leader rather than a warbling soloist.

The room I was in was very cool – it had lasers, UV lights, weird glow-in-the dark pictures of Amazonian women and scary-looking eagles. All the things you need to accompany some singing.

As the lyrics scroll across the screen, tranquil stock film of famous cities pans across the background. Or, sometimes live footage of the band’s song would play.

In retrospect, there’s something a little bit 1984 about hypnotic images with scrolling text. Or maybe it’s just that there’s just a touch too much HAL in those lights for me.

You can queue songs on a handy wireless console with a massive database of songs. It’s a very professional operation. One tip though – remember which room number you’re in. It won’t do to burst in on a room full of tipsy businessmen and demand to know which smart guy picked “My Heart Will Go On“.

So to summarise – it was great. And what did I sing? Firstly, “Land Down Under” (it’s in the constitution). Have you ever actually read those lyrics? “I come from a land down under / Where beer does flow and men chunder”? Wow. Luckily, it has a raging flute solo to make up for this.

And then, “Bohemian Rhapsody“.