This article by Frances Maeda first appeared on Tokyo Cheapo.
Early autumn is a great time to be in Tokyo. Except for the odd typhoon, the weather is just right, and there are heaps of free events to enjoy. Here’s our pick of five particularly awesome ones, bringing you the best of Japanese culture both traditional and contemporary.
1. Nezu Shrine Festival: September 20th-21st
A festival with a long history, held at a Shinto shrine with an even longer one. Nezu Shrine, most famous for its azalea festival in spring, was officially established in 1705, but is said to go back more than 1,900 years. The story goes that it was founded by the legendary priest Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (give him a Google) in Sendagi, and then moved to its current location. The shrine’s Annual Grand Festival was first held somewhere around 1714.
Well-known but not well-publicised, the Grand Festival, or reitaisai, is a chance to see the traditional Shinto dances Urayasu-no-mai and Sanza-no-mai (the latter featuring fearsome masks), as well as taiko drumming and some very old mikoshi (portable shrines) being paraded around. It’s also a good opportunity to try typical Japanese festival food from stalls that will be set up in the shrine precincts. Think takoyaki, yakisoba, squid stuff and various foods on sticks.
The Grand Festival is not to be confused with the newer Shitamachi Matsuri held at the shrine on October 20-21st — also a worthwhile event to check out.
More info here.
2. Tokyo Game Show 2014: September 20th-21st
Tokyo Game Show photo by LonelyBob
Happening on the same weekend as the Nezu Shrine Festival is one of the world’s biggest gaming shows (don’t worry, you’ll have time to do both). First held in 1996, Tokyo Game Show has grown like crazy, attracting close to 300,000 visitors last year. Some people come on tours to Japan just for this event. There are booths by all the major game companies (except Nintendo… yes, really), with chances to try the latest games. You’ll find everything from romance sims to huge titles, indie stuff, smartphone games and merch.
You can expect cosplay, skimpily clad girls (cough, gender issues in gaming, cough cough), and possibly some important industry announcements. Rumors are afloat that something big will be going down about Final Fantasy XV and maybe PS4 too.
1,000 yen and a couple of hours of queuing (seriously, go early!) outside Makuhari Messe will get you in. More info here.
3. Narita Fireworks Festival: October 11th
Most of Japan’s mega fireworks shows happen in summer, but this is an autumn one — and a fairly big one, too. 10,000 shots will be fired into the sky above Chiba’s Narita City, making for a decent display with a variety of shapes and possibly even a couple of cartoon character designs in the mix. Just 10,000 people are expected to attend, making it a much more chilled event than the unbelievably crowded Edogawa and Sumidagawa Fireworks Festivals held earlier in the year (10,000-12,000 shots go off at those shows too).
The venue, Narita Daikata Newtown Sports Square, is a few kilometers from JR Narita Station. There will be buses running both ways, but if you get stressed, it’s a short 5-10 minute taxi ride (just bear in mind that taxis are not all that cheapo-friendly).
More info here.
4. Oeshiki Festival at Ikegami Honmonji Temple: October 11th-13th
A Buddhist festival commemorating the anniversary of the death of Nichiren, a revered Buddhist teacher who lived during the Kamakura period (700-800 years ago). The event is marked across the country, but this version is the most notable as it was at Ikegami Honmonji Temple that Nichiren passed away. He is also said to have founded the temple in 1282 (it underwent reconstruction over the years, though).
The highlight of the festival and an incredibly beautiful experience is watching 3,000 people carry 10,000 lights along a 2km route through the streets. For this rite, called mando, sacred lanterns are decorated with cherry blossoms and hung on 5m poles. Prayers are chanted to drums and flutes in the background.
This is a popular event, and the road from the station to the temple can get crowded – so get there early to secure a good vantage point. The mando has been held on the 12th in previous years, but it’s a good idea to check the temple website ahead of time to confirm.
More info here.
5. Japan Robot Week 2014: October 15th-17th
If you’re in Tokyo, you need to go to this event simply for the stories and social cred at cheapo dinner parties later. The expo is all about service bots — showcasing technology that it’s hoped will revolutionise fields like nursing, life support, disaster response, farming and more, and in so doing help Japan’s “aging society” problem.
Look out for “Excretion Support” robots, as well as something termed “Hand” in the Medical Robots category. Is it a bionic hand? A hand-shaped robot? Let us know, if you find out.
If you get bored, you can always check out the vacuum show that will apparently be happening on the premises too. Did someone say Roomba?
More info here.
Bonus event: Ohara Naked Festival
This event sounds a lot more scandalous than it really is. Partly nude men cart a portable shrine down to the sea and dunk it in the water. It’s good clean fun.
Read on Tokyo Cheapo.
Some of the best household items in Japan come courtesy of the brand Plus D, which works with a range of individual designers to come up with fun, original and practical objects.
Past successes include the Cup Men, a cameleon “hanging man” object that keeps the lid of your instant noodle cup shut while the hot water is working its magic, and then tells you by its changing color when your meal is ready.
Now here are the Animal Rubber Bands, stationery items that are guaranteed to liven up your work station.
There are two sets — Zoo and Pet. The former has an elephant, giraffe, hippo, ostrich, kangaroo and rhino, while the latter features a dog, cat, rabbit, duck, pig and turtle. (Apologies for the nitpicking, but who calls a “pig” or “duck” a pet?!)
The Animal Rubber Bands come courtesy of Passkey Design, a product design team set up in Tokyo in 1994. It consists of Yumiko Ohashi and Masanori Haneda.
These are actually the “wider” version of an earlier design. This model is more durable (because the bands are thicker) and is ideal for wrapping up a notebook, lunchbox, bag of potato chips, and so on.
Or just using to create fun ways to make animal scenes on your desk. After all, we are always looking for new strategies for distracting us from our duties at work.
It generated enough headlines when it opened and now it will surely get some more.
The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku Kabukicho launched in late 2012 on a wave of publicity, not least for its enormous budget and advertising campaign featuring the eponymous robot vehicles been driven. Even if it wasn’t your thing, admit it — you were curious too, right?
And now the Robot Restaurant has its own mascot character, Roboko. (Strictly speaking, they have simply rebranded their robotic vehicles that star in the show as a mascot.)
Roboko is taking part in Japan’s “battle of the mascots”, last year won by Sanomaru. The robotic vixen is entry #55 in the corporate character competition in the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, which is decided by public voting.
We’re not sure about Roboko’s chances against the likes of Kumamon and Funassyi, but you can’t knock them for trying. Last year there were 1,245 regional mascots and 335 corporate characters in the running. The top two regional mascots (the corporate ones get a separate ranking) had over 1 million votes each! (In other words, entering the competition is great for getting more exposure.) The 2013 Grand Prix’s top corporate mascot was Kosuke, the character for the Japanese Cooperative Insurance Association.
The restaurant has made over 10 of its “robots”, with the first ones on display in the entrance as they were apparently actually too big to fit in the final space. They reckon this makes Roboko perhaps the largest yuru-kyara in Japan!
As we wrote in a review last year, we found the Robot Restaurant a bit half-baked. There aren’t any genuine “robots” in the show, more like vehicles that that the dancers ride around on. And despite the risque outfits, it’s not really an adult show nor a regular idol event — something that sits oddly in between. And the staff at the reception were just like you’d expect from a venue located in Tokyo’s most notoriously sleazy district, i.e., pretty unwelcoming.
It also felt significant that around half the clientele were foreign (the restaurant ranked 16th on a recent list of most popular sightseeing spots in Japan for overseas visitors). Anyway, we don’t want to sound too snarky, we are sure that the show must have some appeal and we wish Roboko all the best in the competition. We would say “break a leg” but we doubt that’s physically possible for her.
Voting continues until October 20th, with the winners announced in November.
People from Britain, like myself, often forget that many other countries don’t have roundabouts. The idea of a circular junction with no traffic lights, where the unspoken rules of the road define who gives way and who pulls out and when — this frankly baffles non-Britons when they first witness the workings of one of the nation’s iconic roundabouts.
While standardized and made famous in the UK during the 1990′s, there are roundabouts today in places as far apart as Qatar, New Zealand, China and France. And now Japan.
There has been some speculation about Japan introducing signal-less roundabouts in the past but they’ve finally done it. There are 15 operating in 7 prefectures around Japan, as of September 1st. There are actually around 140 circular intersections in Japan, with some of these now legally designated as roundabouts.
In 2012 six unsignalized intersections were tested in Karuizawa, Nagano, and then further tests were carried out in Shizuoka and Shiga prefectures.
Motorists in Japan, with its danger of electrical blackouts from the frequent earthquakes and other natural disasters, are actually possibly safer off with roundabouts, as they can be used without power. Roundabouts are not only better for the environment, they are also said to reduce accidents.
And if the idea of giving way to oncoming motorists without a signal to tell you to stop sounds like a recipe for traffic mayhem, remember that the Japanese a polite bunch. We predict the roundabout will be a success in this land of small cars and good manners.
The fashion accessory brand Q-pot, known for its chocolate-themed products, has got together with Sharp to create a special limited edition Q-pot. Melty Chocolate TV, which it is selling exclusively through its online shop and Harajuku store from September 17th.
Obviously, like all of Q-pots sugary accessories, it’s not actually made of chocolate. Don’t try eating the screen! The frame is in fact black walnut wood. Also look out for the ten ants disguised around the TV.
Why ants? Well, ants like chocolate and this is a Japanese pun. The word for ant is “ari” and the word for ten is “tou”. In this way it is saying both “There are 10 ants” (ari ga tou) and “thank you” (arigatou). Quite what the gratitude is for, we’re not sure…
The “melting” chocolate part can be taken off and attached to wherever you want it to be on the TV, and the whole thing turns into a mirror when you turn off the power.
There is even a box for the remote control box in the same design and the whole frame can be hung on the wall.
The Q-pot Melty Chocolate TV does come at a price rather more than a bar of chocolate — ¥171,000 (over $1,600), plus tax, to be exact. That’s about 17 times what I paid for my television set, though mine is made of boring materials like plastic.
The Q-pot. brand was launched in 2002 by Tadaaki Wakamatsu. Its previous headline-grabbing products and projects include the Q-pot Cafe in Tokyo and a series of Sharp chocolate phones and iPod accessories.
Japan’s prison facilities have come under international criticism in recent years. Inmates often do not have heating or air-conditioning, and prisoners on death row live in near total isolation, constantly watched by a camera in their cell.
In an effort to improve its image in the community, Japan’s largest jail, Fuchu Prison, holds an annual “culture festival” inviting members of the public to come to the facility and enjoy such things as bread baked by the inmates. At the autumn event visitors can even enjoy a “prison adventure tour”.
While there is no adventure for them, now the new women inmates at Matsuyama Prison’s Saijo Branch in Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture, should have a better quality of incarceration after renovation work was completed on August 29th. Cell doors have been repainted pink ahead of the prison’s transformation into a female inmate facility, Shikoku’s first.
The walls were originally a more neutral (and oppressive) white. The new interior design is meant to make the facility feel more homely and suitable for female prisoners. Forget orange, perhaps pink is actually the new black? There is also now a child-rearing room where prisoners who give birth may take care of their offspring until he or she is one year old. Over half the prison guards will be female.
The Saijo penal facility will house 83 female inmates from November. There are 33 single-occupant cells and 10 communal cells (holding 5 prisoners). The prison had been home to around 20 male inmates, but they were transferred to the main Matsuyama Prison (Japan’s only open prison) in February 2013. Work started on the pink prison in May this year.
There are female prisoners currently housed in 7 locations around Japan, with 3,440 inmates living in facilities designed for 3,342, according to figures from the end of the fiscal year in March 2014. In other words, capacity is nearly 103%. Even workrooms (almost all prisoners work in Japan, such as glueing paper bags or making bicycle parts) are filled by three prisoners instead of two, making it hard for guards to monitor their wards.
Nearby in Shikoku there is also Tokushima Prison, where conditions are notoriously stringent for inmates and which witnessed a small riot a few years ago.
Biwako Biennale 2014 kicks off on September 13th, running until November 9th in a small city along the edge of Japan’s largest lake in Shiga Prefecture.
This sixth edition of the festival features more than 70 artists or artist groups exhibiting site-specific work in 12 old houses in Omihachiman.
The theme this year is “Utakata”, which means foam or bubble. This ethereal beauty is the key motif in the line-up, with contributions from the likes of photographer Rinko Kawauchi, “flower arrangement car” artist Yuji Ueno, sculptor Masato Tanaka (pictured below), and more.
Here are grotesque Kokeshi-esque sculptures by Miki Sachiko.
The first Biwako Biennale was held in 2001. Passes for the 2014 festival cost ¥2,000 for adults.
A preview event was recently held at a Konno Hachiman-gu shrine in Shibuya, including a special dance performance by Tarinainanika (Kentaro Suyama & Tania Coke).
Omihachiman is a roughly 30-minute train ride from Kyoto. The two-month will also include a symposium, workshops and live events.
While Jins (aka J!NS) like to dabble in forward-thinking technology for glasses, they are also fully aware that spectacles are as much fashion accessories as they are practical vision tools. This is why J!NS invested a lot into creating stylish anti-pollen sunglasses and into a successful line of PC glasses for people who get tired eyes from staring at a computer screen.
There are three models: Rilakkuma (in blue or brown colors), Korilakkuma or Kiiroitori. Each comes with the character decorated on the temple or arm, as well as a cleaning cloth also featuring your character of choice.
J!NS have worked with a specialist to create PC glasses that protect your eyes from screen blue light so you get a better night’s sleep. After all, Rilakkuma is the bear who loves to relax.
The glasses cost ¥4,900 (about $50) plus tax and you can also change the lens to J!NS PC glasses prescription lens or regular prescription lens for an additional charge.
We suspect availability for these glasses is going to be very limited once they go on release in early September at J!NS stores.
It seems that you can’t claim to be famous these days unless you take part in the Ice Bucket Challenge to promote awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
In Japan there have been a fair few big names enjoying the fun of the charity campaign this month. While Ayumi Hamasaki and other pop stars nobly undertook to get drenched in cold water, the biggest headlines were actually generated by businessmen accepting the 24-hour challenge.
Most notably, buckets of cold water were dumped on SoftBank’s CEO Masayoshi Son (and Japan’s richest man) did it, as did Yasushi Akimoto, the head of the company behind AKB48, Akio Toyoda (of Toyota), and even Kumamon, the regional mascot for Kumamkoto Prefecture.
Masayoshi Son was the only major businessman we know of in Japan who had the guts to pour the water over himself. We’d expect nothing less from the self-made millionaire. However, we presume that the SoftBank Pepper robot, a celebrity in its own right now, is safe from the water? Who knows what it would do to the circuitry.
This video features a roundup of the most famous Japanese celebrities taking on the ice bucket challenge.
Other local celebrities who have taken part in the Ice Bucket Challenge include figure skater Mao Asada, singer Kaela Kimura, EXILE’s Takahiro, and AKB48′s Mayu Watanabe, as well as figures from the worlds of sports, rakugo, tennis, politics, comedy and more.
There is a timeline of some of the significant Japanese ice bucket challengers on Jonathan Axup’s blog. We’re still waiting for the Prime Minister to comply!