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.

Don’t be wet

Happy 2011 from Japan!  For a country which loves fireworks – and if you haven’t been to a Japanese fireworks display, you can’t even begin to understand what this means – the changing of the date is a very low-key affair.  On New Year’s Eve, thousands of people cluster outside shrines, waiting.  At the stroke of 2011, no “Woo!”.  No kissing, awkwardly or otherwise.  No songs.  No fireworks.  People just get on with the business of paying their respects in an orderly fashion.  If the shrine has a bell, they might make some noise with that for a bit.

TV, however, is a different affair.  Most entertainers have a hectic night, with various family variety specials trotting out something everyone from toddlers to grandma can enjoy.  Perhaps no entertainers are busier than those from Johnny’s, aka The Boy Band Factory Dominating Japanese Pop Culture With Suspiciously Mafia-like Iron Fisted Power.  That might roll off the tongue better in Japanese.

Just about all of the biggest somewhat-androgynous boy bands from Johnny’s like SMAP, Arashi and one hundred others are slickly packaged products deployed in ads, movies, music videos and variety shows.  The Johnny’s web site doesn’t even contain pictures of their stars, such are the lengths they go to protect the valuable image of their commodities.

Want in to the Japanese music biz?  Let me give you slightly more than the no chance you have.

What you need to know about pop music in Japan that that English is the coolest language ever invented.  If you’re reading this, congratulations!  I guarantee you would be much cooler in Japan than wherever you are now.  Yes, you, even you.  So, songs often employ the use of some English to make them more sophisticated.  Like these guys:

Don’t be wet!  Get a grip (if you step)

(From today) We are Fighting Men

Don’t think. Feel! Bring it on (don’t think, let’s go)

Do you think you could do better (but not much better)?  Looking to add “Boy Band Lyricist (2011-2011)” to your resume?  Applications will be graded for curious grammar, awkward phrasing and improper Use of capitalisation.


This year, I decided to stay in Japan for Christmas and New Years, to experience first hand the local flavour of the holidays.  Christmas in Japan is a somewhat different affair to what we’re used to.  Rather than a nominally religious holiday, Japan throws any pretence of that out the window and markets it firmly as a day for couples and presents.  Almost like a Valentine’s Day II, if you like.  Ingredients for a successful Christmas Day in Japan:

1. KFC.  Before Christmas was a big deal in Japan, someone exceedingly crafty at KFC decided to market their product as the de-facto standard for celebrating a romantic, if not greasy, holiday.  It’s now firmly entrenched, with other fast food chains spruiking KFC-like boxes of chicken out of the front of their stores, from stands erected especially for the day.

Rumour has it that you need to book your chicken months in advance to avoid disappointment.  The sign out the front of the store directs people who have pre-ordered to a separate queue to handle the rush.

Alternative 1. Roast chicken.  High end department stores sell whole cooked chickens like the one below.  Unlike Australia, where you can pick up a decent chook for $10 at any supermarket, in Japan this is a rarity and it will run you $35 for the one below.

2. Christmas cake.  Someone, sometime decided that Christmas was a holiday in search of a baked good, and so a sponge cake with white icing and strawberries became the essential buy for the day.  Once again, cake shops start taking orders months ahead, so you need to get in early.  Many Tokyo apartment don’t have ovens, so making one yourself really isn’t an option.

3. Guys forced to advertise a carwash and wear Santa suits on Christmas Day.  Not essential really, just kind of interesting.  I equate Christmas in Australia with almost everyone having the day off, and most shopping malls being ghost towns.  In Japan, it’s just another day, not marked by a public holiday or any slowdown in effort.  Lots of people will celebrate in the evening, but aside from the massive illuminations and decorations like you’d see anywhere else, these are purely for prettiness rather than any “reason for the season”.

In any case, the big show in Japan is New Years, the type of family-oriented day we have at Christmas.  From most reports, the shrines in Tokyo are packed full of people going to receive blessings for the New Year, like some sort of monastic mosh pit.  Wish me luck!

With the stealth of a cinderblock

I’ve always wanted to get a nice shot to show the horrors of a Japanese subway commute; horrors largely greeted with resignation by most Tokyoites.  So, using my compact stealth camera, I figure I’ll snap a few on the train.

However, I don’t count on this one staunch defender of public privacy:

You have to imagine me against the carriage wall, raising my arm near to roof to take the shot in a manner I incorrectly believe is discreet.

Discreet to mortals, perhaps. Oh, he gives me a glaring like you wouldn’t believe:

He generates a sublime look of dignified suspicion, which Google tells me has happened only 14 times in recorded history.

Kudos, curiously dignified commuter!  I  feel slightly bad and will never try it again.  If I see you on the same train as me.

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.