No candy until you finish your booze

We’ve all enjoyed or made fun of wine in a box, but have you ever seen its more petite Japanese cousin?

Yes, these cheap and possibly nasty boxes of booze come in the same form as juices for kids.  Of course, that includes a straw.  The perfect size for lunchboxes, and compact enough to still leave room for loose cigarettes for contraband deals in the playground.

Just for the record, these wouldn’t be sold to kids, but obviously I’m not the only one who finds this mis-mash of adult drinks in kid-size portions disorienting.  The purple label beneath the shelf warns “THIS IS ALCOHOL”, suggesting this has caused problems in the past.

It’s alarming how charming I feel

On the man-made entertainment island called Odaiba in Tokyo Harbour, Toyota have a massive monument to themselves called Mega Web.  I’ve been several times, and it’s well worth visiting – simulators, race cars, prototype cars, driver reflex testers, and even a track you can drive a small eco-car around.

Of course, Toyota don’t run a massive warehouse of fun for naught – they’d rather like it if you bought one of their cars one day.  The commercial cars they have on display change quite often, but it’s never been too interesting for this dedicated subway rider.

However, their latest exhibit showing off the iQ compact car range is a corker.  I’m assuming these will never see the light of day outside Japan. The motif seems to be “The Car Your Strongly Culturally-Themed Grandmother Might Drive If She Disregarded All Principles Of Aerodynamics And Abnormally Loved Doilies”:

Lovely, but really – the lack of wheel-arch tassels on the last model shows a lack of craftsmanship I can’t abide.

The rug you plug into a wall

Happy New Year! Let’s all agree to call this year “twenty-ten” rather than “two thousand and ten”. It sounds so much more futuristic that way. Every time I see the number “2010” written on a poster somewhere, I let out a low whistle. I actually made it to the future. I am very proud of myself.

One of the reasons I know I live in the future is because of this:

That’s right, I have rug technology!  Oh, what’s that, you do too?  Well, if you’ve got good eyes you might have noticed this:

That’s right, I have an electronic rug. I had no idea such things existed.

Actually, it’s called hotto kaapetto in Japanese (hot carpet), which is a pretty accurate name, really. There’s nothing like curling up on a warm piece of carpet on a chilly winter night to read a book. According to the box, it’s four times more efficient than a wall mounted heater, so you can also warm yourself in the false belief that you’re really a kind person towards the environment.

Not only does it heat the floor, but it also nicely takes the chill off the room as the temperature heads down to zero degrees.  My previously numb fingers are thanking me for my little environmental indiscretion.  It’s hard to type in gloves.

The bird that never was

Some months ago while at an unfamiliar Tokyo subway station, I was startled to hear the clear sound of a cheerfully twittering bird. Here, 30 meters underground, in the all steel-and-concrete bowels of the Tokyo Metro? It seemed that some birds aren’t very picky with places to nest.

After listening for a while, though, I eventually realised that it just was a recording of a bird call playing at 10 second intervals. At the time, i dismissed it as a futile attempt to humanize the sterile steel and concrete environment of the Tokyo Metro, to cheer up exhausted, overworked salary men during the crush of rush hour. Somehow, I don’t think a bird call is going to do it.

Tonight, however, I finally got the crucial clue to solve the mystery. The loudspeaker making the bird noises is mounted at the base of the platform’s exit staircase. Looking closer showed a small symbol of a man with a white cane.

In other words, blind people can follow the bird call to navigate their way out of the dense maze of the subway. Better yet, it does it in a way that’s unobtrusive and even pleasant for other passengers. Fantastic design.

Four out of five foreigners choose….

Picking the difference between laundry detergents is something I find difficult at best, even when I can fully comprehend the packaging. I am not a chemist (if that even helps), so other than looking for the box with the most fluorescent colours and promises of whiter whites, I am typically clueless in this regard. However, trying to buy laundry detergents in Japanese adds that little extra challenge that I wasn’t necessarily looking for. There are about twenty brands of laundry detergents at my local supermarket, and these are my shortlist.  Please also enjoy one of my favourite games, translating English words translated into Japanese back into English.

Name: Emaaru
Likely translation: any suggestions?

This was the laundry detergent I first bought upon arriving in Japan, because it had clean-looking shirts on the label, so hopefully it would also make my day-glo orange and lime-green shirts glow equally radiantly.  However, I later noticed that it has the “Woolmark” symbol on it.  As someone who likes to wear a lot of hessian, I realised that this was therefore far too girly for me.  It slightly atones for this by having an interesting mechanism where you hold the bottle upright and squeeze the correct amount of liquid up into the graduated cap.

Name: Arieeru
Likely translations: Arial (font?), Ariel (mermaid?)
Subtitle:  “ionpawaajeru” (Ion power gel)

This actually did a pretty lousy job of washing clothes.  I think it may be because although the picture up the top looks like a top-loading washing machine (which is what I have), the icon in the bottom right hand corner seems to show that it’s for front-loading washing machines, just to keep it confusing.  The label is blue however, so you’d have to assume that it will clean things a bit.  This assumption would be wrong.

Name: Atakku!
Likely translation: Attack!
Subtitle: baiojeru (bio gel)

It had me at “Atakku!”.  Though I should note that I once again didn’t notice this was for a front-loading washing machine.  Damn.  So, though it has a sufficiently bad-ass sounding name, it still doesn’t really clean my clothes that well.

Problem solved, though – I decided that clean clothes aren’t cool anymore.  My next job is to convince everyone else of this, which I’m sure will be much easier than finding another laundry detergent.

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.