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.

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Viable panty lies

“Hey, is this true, this thing I heard about Japan?”
“What?”, I say, “What is that thing you heard about Japan?”
“I heard you can buy used schoolgirl panties from vending machines! Honest! A guy I know read it on the Internet!”

I think the “used panty vending machine” story is up the top of the list of questions I get about Japan. While having all the hallmarks of an urban myth, it’s true!

That is, it was true. Maybe. Some claim it was a strictly ’90s phenomenon before the machines got shut down. Others claim the reports come from illiterate Westerners, who can’t tell the difference between clean and used underwear being vended. In any case, if used panty vending machines still exist today, there’s no obvious evidence of them in Tokyo.

Or is there? Spied last weekend: an ordinary-looking vending machine in plain sight near my house:

Which on closer inspection – yes – contains panties!

Oh, regular pantyhose. That’s probably kind of convenient. I guess it’s a little quirky. Sort of.

How disappointing.

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.

My ones and zeros sound better than your ones and zeros

Near my office is one of Tokyo’s audio equipment retail districts, and I recently happened to pop into a store with a co-worker who said he wanted to pick up a couple of things over his lunchbreak. High-end speaker equipment is not unique to Japan of course, but it was the first time I’d ventured into one of these stores for myself.

I entered the world of the audiophile, and I don’t think things will ever be the same.

How about this used speaker cable, a steal at just $2800 AUD?

Or how about one of these second-hand audio cables at only $977 and $1140 respectively?

I’ve got to say, they look the business.  If they also happen to improve sound quality, I guess that would also be useful.

I once happened to meet a guy who used to work in stereo sales. He confided that while the margins on the speakers and amps were only modest, they made an absolute killing on cables – sometimes up to 80% pure profit.

As he said: “Once a guy  – yes, almost always a guy – has already dropped multiple thousands of dollars on high-end stereo equipment, it’s the easiest thing in the world to say, ‘You know, it would be a shame if you weren’t getting the best out of your new gear. If don’t use these $2000 cables, really, what’s the point?'” Thanks the the miracle of price anchoring, that $2000 seems like a trifle compared to the several thousands more the punter has already outlaid.

What also makes this so effective as a money-turning enterprise is that as audio quality is such a subjective thing, you can always be lead to believe that there’s just a little too much bass, or that treble is not quite sharp enough.  If only you’d bought those more expensive cables!  Time to upgrade!

But don’t let me sit here and claim that audiophiles are alone here.  I have a funny feeling that this scene in a camera shop is based on bitter personal experience.  I imagine you can easily replace the word “lens” with “speaker cable”:

Playing the market for fun and deliciousness

Tokyo is a big city, and the range of items you get at most shops and supermarkets is just fantastic.  However, there’s one food item I’ve missed here more than any other: lamb, and specifically lamb chops.

Yes, I love me a lamb chop.  However, it’s nigh-impossible to find them over here on the less-international east side of Tokyo.  If you go into a supermarket and ask, they’ll say that they don’t stock them because no-one wants them.  I want them, I say.  Sorry, I don’t speak English, they say before getting back to scanning barcodes, in spite of the entire conversation being in Japanese up until that point.  Case closed.

Talking to Japanese people, the reason that lamb isn’t popular here is that the smell is considered too strong for many people.  I’m not sure how that heavenly smell could ever be too strong, and this in a county where liver is massively popular.  There’s a reason, “What am I, chopped liver?” is used negatively.  At any rate, lamb is just not the belle of the meat section in Japan, it would seem.

However, a Happening!

Lamb!  And Australian lamb, no less.  It was certainly not cheap at around $11 for two modestly-sized lamb chops, but the way I fell upon them like a recently returned castaway, I was sure I was getting some interesting looks from surrounding shoppers.

So, I’d sated my lambly desires for one day.  But how to ensure my supply?  The lamb had just suddenly turned up one day and might well disappear the next.

And with such thinking, I made it my mission to single-handedly prop up demand for lamb at my local supermarket.  When lamb appeared, I’d buy it.  All of it.  Sales of lamb had never been higher there!  I imagine supermarket execs in their monthly sales meeting with one of those big graphs on an easel, a spiky red line surging ever-upwards.  “No, I don’t know what happened at that store either, Yamamoto-san.  But order more lamb, stat!  It’s flying off the shelves!”

With supply of lamb increasing and faced with a glut, I keep buying it, unsure of how much artificial demand I need to create to ensure a perpetual supply.  Meanwhile, my freezer is overflowing.  I’m unable to eat so much lamb, and actually get kind of sick of it after trying to battle through my stockpiles.  My desire to eat lamb diminishes considerably.

And so not long after it begins, my attempt to slap down the invisible hand in my local economy fails, my lamb problem is solved and the local lamb market regulates itself.

This may be the only time something I learned in the one torturous year of my aborted Economics degree has come true in a real-world situation.  I’ll have to contact my former economics professor.   I’m sure he won’t make a mistake like that again.

Article take-away: it’s impossible to manipulate economies if you’re a fussy eater.

Here comes a new challenger

New technology time!  My favourite time, really.

For documenting my time in Japan, my camera is something I carry with me all over the place.  I still use my Sony A300 DSLR regularly, but there’s one problem: it’s a heavy, obtrusive camera.  I feel the need to cart a wide angle and telephoto lens everywhere I go, and feel self-conscious touting it around stores looking for hilariously misspelled English to take photos of.  Additionally, some things like festivals can’t be completely captured as a still frame, so the addition of moving pictures (which I’ve coined the phrase “mopics” for) would be more than handy.

Yes, there are camera phones, but the image quality and response time always feels sub-par.  The other downside of phone cameras in Japan is that as an anti-pervert measure (by law?) the shutter noise cannot be turned off.  This is apparently a regional change to the Japanese version of the iPhone too.  Needless to say, although my objectives are pure (honest!), you don’t always want to break the dead silence of a packed train carriage with the tell-tale shutter noise.  Cameras without a phone feature, strangely, do not appear to be subject to this ruling, and can be run silently.  So, I decided it was time to take the plunge and look at the compact camera market.

After a bit of asking around, I ended up with Sony’s very slick new TX7, which I’m extremely happy with after three days of extensive use.  For around AUD $350 via Amazon Japan, not only does it include a wide range of impressive still shot features, but also the ability to do HD 1920×1080@60i movies!  These look absolutely gorgeous on the TX7’s 3.5 inch touchscreen – running eerily smoothly, they almost look hyper-real.

The sad part is that my three year-old laptop lacks the horsepower to display high quality movies smoothly.  So, I’m reduced to viewing them on the camera itself or converting them to a lesser format.

The video functions seem to perform very well in low light, too.  Although I don’t know if this clip runs in 60i on YouTube, try cranking the quality up to 1080p and tell me how it looks.  Unfortunately, my machine can only handle up to 720p.

The camera itself is slightly larger than a credit card, and 1.7cm thick.  It’s easily pocket-able along with my mobile phone, and easy to grab when the occasion demands.  So finally, I have a “go everywhere” camera I can use without diving into my backpack to grab my SLR.

You may also be surprised to find out that this camera can even take photos!  As well as taking a fairly decent shot for a compact camera, it’s got a couple of new modes I was pleasantly surprised at.  The first is a panorama (a.k.a. stitch) mode.  Stitching photos together is nothing new, but the joy of this camera is that it does all the processing inside the phone almost instantly.  Select a direction to pan the camera, press the shutter button, start smoothly swinging the camera around – a handy gauge tracks how fast you’re moving the camera and how much room you have left in your arc – and the stitched image appears almost instantaneously.

When I was a boy, why, we had to stitch our photos together in the snow!  With no shoes on!  Uphill!  It built character, I say.

But this is way easier.

The other feature of note is a HDR mode, processed in-camera.  HDR is the process of taking three separate shots of the same scene at different exposures, then later combining the shots together to try to “correct” the problems of under and overexposure in parts of a scene with varied lighting.  Usually, I have to do this manually via software, but the TX7 does it quickly and automatically, all in-camera.  The results don’t give you nearly as much control as a program like Photomatrix, but for the minimal effort required, it works a treat.

Anyway, that’s the quick introduction to the new member of the blog.  It really is amazing to me that they stuffed so many features into such a small box.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put it to good use soon to show some aspects of Japan I haven’t been able to until now.

When Very Good Liquid isn’t good enough

Japanese pharmacies seem to provide an never-ending stream of curiosities:

Now that I have finally obtained the Perfect Liquid, the various liquids I used to use on a regular basis have been made obsolete.  Via this consolidation, I hope to see significant efficiency gains in my liquid management activities.

I am assuming this is something like the magic potion from the Asterix comics.  I’ll chug a bottle and let you know which superpowers I gain.