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.


1000 Bar Mitzvahs

My little brother (who’s taller than me) was in town a while back, so we decided to go out and find some tradition outside of the neon jungle of Tokyo.  We settled on Nara, which is a forty minute train ride from Kyoto.  Nara is like Kyoto, focusing on history, but is a little more low-key and very slightly less touristy than its bigger neighbour.

What’s amazing is that this year, Nara is celebrating their 1300th anniversary, complete with a special commemorative Kirin beer to celebrate (the coloured band along the bottom is the special edition part):

It’s mainly famous for impressive places like this and the ant-like people who visit them:

This is Todai Temple, the largest wooden building in the world.  It’s difficult to fathom the scale when you’re standing in front of it. It’s build to house this massive statue of the Buddha, one of the biggest in Japan:

How’s this for some history?  The temple was built in 752 AD.  In 855, the Buddha’s head fell off after an earthquake.  Shortly after they fixed it, the whole building was burned down in a war.  Then they rebuilt it.  Then it got burned down again in another war in 1180.  They they rebuilt it.  Then in 1567, it got burned out in another war.  Then they rebuilt it.  In 1610 it collapsed in gale-force winds.  Since 1709, the current building has endured.

For a life of 1258 years, I guess that’s a pretty good track record, but I can’t help but think of another famous building:

Bathing in Osakan light

If you’re ever in Osaka at night, Dotonbori is the place to be.  It’s the central drag in Osaka jam packed full of people, energy, and lots of really good restaurants.  The motto in Osaka, after all, is kuidaore – eat until you drop.

With some much competition for diners on the street, businesses have to do something extra to stand out.  Apparently, it started out with this mechanised crab billboard:

…which was swiftly followed by imitations like this puffer fish:

…or these light-up demons shilling takoyaki (squid balls – highly recommended!):

…or this jolly gentleman, who looks like his mouth should move but didn’t:

One of the famous symbols of Osaka, the Glico Man, is just around the corner, nestled in a wall of writhing neon advertising:

Battle the throngs on a Saturday night, it’s worth it.  Not as Blade-Runnery as Tokyo, not Times Square-sy like New York, but genuinely charming in its own way.

I’ll just say it: I really like squid balls.

If you come to Tokyo, you need to order squid balls.  Then, you need to go to Osaka and order squid balls.  You will realise that Osaka squid balls are much better than Tokyo squid balls.  Then, you should go back to Tokyo and say to a random person, “Why are the squid balls in Osaka better than the squid balls in Tokyo?”.

Sorry, I should have prefaced that by saying I’m assuming you want to find out exactly what the Japanese limits on politeness actually are.

Takoyaki (squid balls) from Osaka are heavenly.  A small piece of squid encased in a warm, spongy globe of batter, fried and seasoned with various herbs and delicious miscellany.  Served on a foam tray with a toothpick for skewering, smothered in mayonnaise, BBQ sauce and chives, and it’s the perfect street snack.

Or at least, it was the perfect street snack, until I found something even better there: the takosen.  Three or so squid balls sandwiched between two savoury senbei crackers, with spring onion and sauces.  It’s $1.50 of portable delight, a Japanese version of the taco but maybe even better.

I should make it clear that I really like tacos, too.

When I got back to Tokyo after my trip, I desperately asked around the office where I could get tacosen in Tokyo, but of the few that even knew what they were (Osaka-ites all), no-one had any idea.  A regional specialty that seems to be a well-kept secret.

There’s a guy selling takoyaki out of a van near my train station in Tokyo.  He’s probably been doing it for twenty years or more.  If he doesn’t know what a takosen is, I am going to show him.  I will buy the ingredients for him.  National pride and dignity  be damned, this foreigner will show the Japanese guy making squid balls for decades how to do his job.

Next post (tentative title): How I Failed To Teach A Professional Squid Ball Maker How To Do His Job, Actually Insulting Him Quite Badly In The Process, Sorry About That Professional Squid Ball Maker.

The billboards say no

Ah Osaka – I was there only six days ago but it feels like so long. At least we’ll always have pictures…

One of the hipper areas of Osaka is Amerika Mura (American Village), which is a bit like Tokyo’s Shibuya in that it’s trendy, crowded and anyone over 40 is banned from entering.

You’ve got lots of people against a street-scape so busy that it tears into your retinas:

You’ve got sharply dressed fellas like this:

…along with lots of billboards and shops lining a shady park:

Wait a second… Enhance! Contrast! Tint! Bright! Sleep mode! Vertical hold!

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C:

Hmm, THREE empty billboards in a high traffic, highly visible area of town, where the demographic with the highest disposable income hangs out. No matter what any of the more optimistic armchair economists say, I’m pretty sure the world economy is not out of the woods yet.

While you wait for Economic Armageddon Round 2, please distract yourself with this video of Amerika Mura entitled Amerika Mura.

Eating Kobe

Golden Week! It’s the last of the Golden Week holidays today, when Japan shuts down and everyone goes traveling. This year, it was time to venture west once more, this time to Kobe and Osaka.  Kobe and Osaka are in a region of Japan called Kansai, famous for its brilliant food, more relaxed pace of life, comedy, and regional dialect, Kansai-ben.  Both are great places for a holiday, but perhaps the best place to start is the food.  After all, Osaka is the home of kuidaore (literally, “eat until you drop”), a motto I tried hard to live up to.

At the top of my list of things to do in Kobe: eat Kobe beef. Kobe beef, you might remember, is that notoriously expensive cut of meat famous for the cows being massaged and fed beer. Despite the expense, I knew that I had to try it – and I guess Kobe is relying on tourists like me, because if all the locals ate like this every night, they’d be well-fed and living in refrigerator boxes.  The prices are something like this (rough rule of thumb to convert to Australian dollars – move the decimal point two places to the left, add on another 15 percent, and you’re about there):

Following a recommendation of a local, your humble scribe went to a lovely establishment called Steak Land. The name conjured up visions of sirloins dangling from trees, kids playfully splashing each other with meat sauce and mascots dressed as porterhouses annoying everyone.  While it didn’t have the mascots, it was definitely in the top 10 meals I’ve ever had.

Firstly: to settle the debate on how to BBQ a steak. When you’re dealing with a $60 slab of meat in a city famous for its beef, I’m going to assume these guys are going to know a thing or two. Watch how they do it for yourself:

He’s cooking on a teppan, which is a hotplate positioned right in front of the diner.

Now, maybe you’ve been to teppanyaki before, where a Japanese chef cooks food right in front of you before throwing it all over your clothes. Japanese people agree with me that this is a stupid idea. Most express utter bewilderment when I explain this popular perversion of their culture. In Japan, a teppan is just an indoor barbecue, nothing more, no floor show.

This particular establishment seemed to know that consuming a lovely steak in lovely surrounds helps too.  Warm, dark hardwood furniture, shiny stainless steel hotplates running the length of the room, numerous skilled chefs who bow very politely before beginning their work: no wonder the queue was out the door.

Of course, this being Japan, steaks are often eaten with chopsticks rather than a knife and fork. So, there’s no big slabs of beef set before customers here: not by the time the chef is done with them, anyway. Everything is bite-sized and cooked to perfection.

The golden flakes adorning the steak in the picture below are fried garlic – a lot of fried garlic.  Now, I’m a fan of garlic, but the couple of cloves I was served proved to be far above my threshold.

So, where is Steak Land?  In Kobe, near Sannomiya Station.  Just look for the dodgy alleyway packed with dodgy hostess clubs, dodgy girly bars and dodgy guys promoting both, and you’ll know you’re there.

Although I say that, it’s important to understand that the dodgiest parts of many Japanese cities are probably safer than the safest parts of many others.  The combination of police and local organised crime keep the peace very effectively.

So, to sum up: Kobe beef is everything it’s cracked up to be, and you should definitely try it sometime.  You’re looking at around $63 AUD a head for dinner, but lunchtime dining is up to half price.  Maybe it’s just my post-extravagant-meal-justification gland kicking in, but I don’t think I’ve had a better steak.  Each piece just melts in your mouth, and is worthy of a meditative contemplation as you eat.  Since everyone is sitting counter-style next to people you don’t know, this is probably one of the few meals where a lack of conversation is welcome as you worship at the Temple of Beef.

The press of the rush

More fooling around with my new camera acquisition, this time filming a typical evening rush hour commute between two Tokyo subway stations. Things to watch out for:

  • People gripping the door frame to jam themselves into the carriage;
  • Me pressed up against the door from the weight of people behind me;
  • Two hundred people crammed into the carriage, but everyone is virtually silent the whole time, with nary a sneeze;
  • The guy wearing a mask behind me, who notices my casual attempt to aim the camera over my shoulder;
  • The rows upon rows of apartment buildings and convenience stores lit up.

In related news, turns out the RRP of the TX7 in Australia is double what I paid at Amazon Japan!  If you use the exchange rate from a year ago, sure, but the Aussie dollar has been climbing ever upwards towards parity with the yen of late.  Sony Australia says they’re out of stock, so it seems even they don’t expect to sell any at that price.