I like my soup like my laughter: canned

It’s gotten cold in Tokyo: not arctic cold, but enough to make everyone a little grumpy.

The perfect fix: hot tomato soup, just like Mama used to make!  I’m assuming your Mama made soup in a gigantic industrial vat, poured it into 200ml ring-pull cans and sold it to her children from vending machines.

For the princely sum of 120 yen, you can be quaffing a hot can of vended tomato soup in seconds.  And how is it?  Not too bad at all!

Sadly, while you can find hot corn soup in vending machines everywhere, I’ve only found this tomato soup in one vending machine in the whole of Tokyo, whose location I have promptly forgotten.

I grow my own stash

A normal Subway restaurant in Tokyo:

Or IS it?

Well, obviously not. In this Subway, they grow their own hydroponic lettuce for use in the store.  They call it “831 Lab“:

As far as I know, this is a special trial only run in a few stores.

The name “831 Lab” is interesting in itself.   Numbers in Japanese can be pronounced in various ways.  One way you can write 8-3-1 is Ya-San-Ichi, which you could shorten down to get “ya-sa-i”.  “Yasai” in Japanese means “vegetable”, so, 831 Lab is the “vegetable lab”.

Light goes on, mind gets blown

Japan isn’t as futuristic as it’s cracked up to be.  Tokyo is easily the Blade-Runner-iest place around, but it’s still not Blade Runner.  As I’ve repeatedly noted, no robots walking the street, for instance.

Every now and then, though, you see something which makes you remember why Japanese technology is great.

Japanese long-haul trains often have first class carriages called “Green Cars”.  The major differences to a normal carriage are that you get more comfortable seats, tray tables, and much less crowding than when you mix with the *cough* commoners.

Naturally, this costs a little extra.  Just for the experience, I decided to give this a go recently.

Interestingly, you can’t buy a Green Car ticket outside the station.  Only once you’re at the platform can you buy  an upgrade.  However, you don’t get a paper ticket. The upgrade is only registered on your chargeable smart card (called a Suica).  So, if you can’t show anyone physical proof you’ve bought a Green Car ticket, and you’re already on the platform, how do train employees verify that only those with Green Car tickets are in the Green Car?  All is explained:

…or in other words…

Above your seat is a sticker and a status light.  The sticker is actually a contactless smart card reader.

Touch your card to the sticker, and the light above your seat turns green to indicate you’ve now registered your seat.  Of course, you can only do this if you’ve bought the Green Car upgrade previously.

So, it’s easy for the conductor to just look down the carriage and see the freeloaders sitting in a seat with a red light above it.

Even smarter is the reuse of information byproducts.  When you buy the upgrade, you need to tell it where you’re disembarking, since this affects the price.  Using this information, the lights above those getting off at a particular station can automatically be turned red, ready for another passenger to sit down and register themselves.

Rest of the world, learn from Japan.  They may not have replicants yet, but they do have awesome transport systems.

Robot toilets

You might have heard about the marvel that is Japanese toilets, but what do you do when you meet one in your hour of need?  You’ll be confronted with this:

Oh yes, it’s a regular space shuttle cockpit.  When you’re at your most vulnerable, random buttons causing grinding and whirring noises between your exposed regions is less than comforting. A sampling of buttons:

  • bidet mode
  • “bottom” mode
  • “soft” mode
  • water spray strength control
  • deodorant mode on / off
  • heated seat on / off
  • heat temperature setting
  • warm water on / off
  • water temperature setting
  • toilet self-cleaning mode
  • power saver mode
  • power saver timer

Many women’s toilets also have a “Sound Princess” button, usually shown with a musical note. When pressed, loud waterfall noises mask the terrible, terrible shame of your ablutions.

Some people’s home toilets also have the lid automatically rigged to compliantly lift when you open the door.  If you don’t know this, it’s quite a shock when you open the door to an apparently empty toilet and see movement.  “Waah!  Sorry, I…. oh, it’s just you, robot toilet.”

Another favourite is when alongside the panel encrusted with buttons, there’s a single large button.  Not being able to read Japanese, you figure this obvious large button must be the flush button.  When you press it, there’s no flush: just peels of laughter from outside.  You press it again.  More laughter, no flush.  Eventually, you work out the button that flushes. When you walk back out to the party in progress, you find out you just announced to everyone that you had finished your business via a buzzer that you couldn’t hear, but  everyone outside could.  Luckily, they had already stopped the building superintendent rushing up to the apartment to help the older person who apparently needed urgent assistance.

The one button missing from Japanese toilets is “Recover lost dignity”.  Coming soon, hopefully.

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”:

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.

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.