Monthly Archives: May 2013

This Abandoned Island was Once the Most Densely Populated Place on Earth


Hashima Island, 11 miles off the coast of Nagasaki, is known by two nicknames: “Gunkanjima” (Battleship Island) and “Midori nashi shima” (island without green). The austere brutality conjured by these names is reflected in its appearance — Gunkanjima is a narrow lump of rock covered in the crumbling remains of a crowded concrete village.

Mitsubishi purchased the island in 1890 to establish a facility for mining undersea coal reserves. In 1916, the first concrete high-rises sprung up on Gunkanjima — nine-story slabs of gray with cramped rooms and rows of identical balconies overlooking a claustrophobic courtyard. By 1959, over 5,000 coal miners and their families occupied these drab apartments, making the island — the size of 12 football fields — the most densely populated place on Earth.

Residents relied on the mainland for deliveries of food and, until 1957, water, but Gunkanjima was otherwise self-sufficient. Schools, playgrounds, cinemas, shops, a hospital, and even brothels operated in the tiny community. There were no motor vehicles or elevators — steep concrete staircases that connected adjoining buildings were the only means of travel to ninth-floor apartments.

During the 1960s, Japan gradually switched from coal to petroleum for its fuel needs. As a result, coal mines across the country closed.Gunkanjima was no exception. In January 1974, Mitsubishi held a ceremony in the gymnasium to officially close its mining facility. With no reason to live on the island anymore, all residents abandoned their homes for the mainland within two months. Gunkanjima has been uninhabited ever since.

Decades of typhoons, wind, rain, and seawater have caused massive degradation to the monolithic buildings. Wooden planks regularly fall from the disintegrating balcony railings, landing on the piles of crumbled concrete below. Contorted steel beams and rusted iron frames protrude from the walls. Hints of domesticity remain: a teacup; a tricycle; a television manufactured in the 1960s. The only sounds on what was once the world’s most crowded place are the whipping wind and crashing waves.

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What to buy:Tokyo souvenirs for panda lovers

20 great gifts inspired by Ueno Zoo’s most famous residents

Tokyo souvenirs for panda lovers

Pandas: people just can’t get enough of them. Ever since the first giant panda arrived at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1972, the Japanese public has barely swerved in its devotion to these ambling bamboo-munchers. The domestic media obsessively tracks the procreational activities of the zoo’s current residents, Shin Shin and Ri Ri, and when a newborn cub died of pneumonia last year it was practically a cause for national mourning. Even if you don’t make it as far as the zoo, pandas are an unavoidable presence in Ueno, adorning everything from doughnuts to daruma, snow globes to one-cup saké (no, really). Here are 20 of our favourite Tokyo panda souvenirs.

Panda doughnuts:

Who’s that cheeky critter poking its head out of our teatime treat? These fluffy doughnuts from Nakashibetsu, Hokkaido have been given a panda-style makeover in their Tokyo incarnation, with flavours including Hokkaido Milk, Shiretoko Salt Caramel, Hokkaido Pumpkin and Cocoa Chocolate.
Price: ¥1,050 for three
Available at: Siretoco Factory, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda stationery

Panda-themed stationery is easy to come by in Ueno, but for the biggest selection you need to venture into the park itself. Adorned with miniature bears and an official panda logo, these pens, mechanical pencils and rulers bring a dash of fun to even the most boring desk job.
Price: ¥365 each
Available at: Parks Ueno, 7 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda daruma doll

Even traditional craftspeople aren’t immune to the charms of Ri Ri and Shin Shin. This cute, handcrafted ornament comes courtesy of Terunaga Mashimo, a third-generation daruma doll maker from Gunma Prefecture, and wouldn’t look out of place in even the most stylish of abodes.
Price: ¥1,890 each
Available at: Yu Nakagawa, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda bento box

Lunchtimes will never be the same again once you’ve tucked into one of these creations from venerable food maker Tsukuasa Shoten. A rice panda adorned with umeboshi plums sits amid lightly seasoned vegetables, chicken, salmon and egg roll. It’s a deco bento to die for: just be warned that there are only 20 available each day.
Price: ¥735 each
Available at: Okazu Honten Tsukuasa, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda pouch

Fluffy pouches are a staple of panda merchandise in Tokyo, but you might struggle to top this tasty little number, available at the ultra-girly Plame Collome shop. At 10cm wide, it’s large enough to accommodate make-up or a small camera, while that ribbon is sure to have your friends squealing ‘kawaii!
Price: ¥1,260 each
Available at: Plame Collome, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda waffles

The Ueno 3153 branch of cake shop Cozy Corner sells waffle sandwiches adorned with cat and dog faces – but the panda reigns supreme. Get your spongy confection with a choice of fillings, including custard and milk cream flavoured with strawberries and sweet azuki beans.
Price: from ¥150
Available at: Ginza Cozy Corner, 1F Ueno 3153, 1-57 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda origami set

In this part of town, it’s practically a requirement that any gift shop has a dedicated panda section, and stylish stationer Angers Bureau is no different. We like this origami set by Realfake, which uses paper printed with photos of actual animal fur. The 16 sheets are enough to make eight paper pandas, with bilingual instructions to help English speakers.
Price: ¥840
Available at: Angers Bureau, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda snow globe

Speaking of panda sections, the local branch of hipster knick-knack bazaar Village Vanguard has got one too. This trinket comes adorned with a Sichuan landscape, though we’re not sure that quite redeems its utter tackiness.
Price: ¥840
Available at: Village Vanguard, 5F Ueno Marui, 6-15-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda purse

If a fluffy panda pouch isn’t quite sophisticated enough for you (see above), here’s a more elegant alternative. This palm-sized purse, fashioned in the traditional Japanese style, comes to us via Bel Regalo, a Kyoto brand that’s only just starting to become widely available in Tokyo.
Price: ¥840
Available at: 1F Ueno Marui, 6-15-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda kamaboko

Mmm, panda-faced processed fish paste… It’s hard to imagine these finding an audience overseas, but they’d make a welcome addition to the average Japanese schoolkid’s lunch box. Pick them up in black, pink or yellow versions at Fujiya, a stalwart of the bustling Ameyoko market.
Price: ¥400 each, ¥1,000 for three
Available at: Fujiya, 6-10-4 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda rice crackers

The Osama-do shop has been cranking out okaki rice crackers since the 1920s from its base in nearby Senzoku, but you’ll need to visit the Ueno Station branch to get these. Seaweed-flavoured and with a nice salty tang, the ‘Ogaki Panda’ would go equally well with tea or something a little stronger (and stiffer).
Price: ¥210 each
Available at: Osama-do, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Diablock giant panda

Why buy a readymade panda when you can build your own? This Diablock giant panda from Lego imitators Kawada is likely to appeal to bored office workers as much as kids, and it’s not as fiddly as the Nanoblock kits for which the company is better known.
Price: ¥1,260
Available at: Yamashiroya, 6-14-6 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda handkerchief

This large, tenugui-style handkerchief is one of the more understated offerings on our list: only a small illustration in one corner indicates that it’s pandering to the panda crowd (sorry). It’s a useful little number, too: the pocket on the reverse could accommodate a kairo hand warmer in winter or an ice pack in the summer.
Price: ¥630
Available at: Flower Jelly, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda pin badge

Every branch of Hard Rock Cafe has its own exclusive pin badges – and no prizes for guessing what the main theme is at the Ueno restaurant. If regular offerings like the ‘City Guitar’ pin (pictured) aren’t enough, look out for the limited edition pins, released on the third Saturday of the month.
Price: ¥1,200 each (limited edition pins ¥1,500)
Available at: Hard Rock Cafe Uyeno Eki, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda mooncake

China’s favourite calorie bomb never looked cuter than when adorned with a doe-eyed panda face. These popular mooncakes are sold in sets of two at the Ueno branch of Chinese restaurant chain Toh-Ten-Koh, though you can also get panda-branded manju and niku-man buns at their online store.
Price: ¥500 for two
Available at: Toh-Ten-Koh, 1-4-33 Ikenohata, Taito-ku

Panda one-cup saké

It would be remiss not to suggest at least one panda-related way of getting pished, and Gifu’s Miyozakura Jozo have got us covered. This ‘one cup’ saké was launched to mark the arrival of Ueno Park’s first giant panda in 1972 – and unlike most other varieties of this street-drinking staple, you might actually keep the glass once you’ve drunk it.
Price: ¥231
Available at: Kinokuniya, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda roll cake

You’ve probably tried to make something similar at home and failed miserably (or was that just me?). Let the experts at Les Patissieres show you how it’s done with this oh-so-soft roll cake, filled with whipped cream and chocolate mousse to create a panda face. One word of advice: warm your knife before slicing it, to keep the design intact.
Price: ¥1,470 each
Available at: Les Patissieres, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda bouncy ball

If you make it as far as the Ueno Station ticket gates before realising you’ve forgotten to buy any souvenirs, nip into design shop Rezept nearby to snag one of these: cheap, cheerful and likely to last longer than anything else on this list.
Price: ¥200 each
Available at: Rezept Design & Store, Ecute, 3F JR Ueno Station, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku

Panda cookies

Ueno’s best stocked emporium of panda produce is, unsurprisingly, to be found in the zoo itself. Among the sweets, keyrings and stuffed toys on offer, these butter and chocolate cookies seem to be particularly popular – though it’s hard not to feel that the tin is a bigger selling point than what’s inside.
Price: ¥650
Available at: Ueno Zoo gift shop, 9-83 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku

Panda yaki cakes

Sometimes the traditional options are the best, and that’s probably true of these old-school ‘panda yaki’ sponge cakes, filled with the sweet bean paste so beloved of Western tourists (joking). Just be warned: look at that panda face for too long and it starts to get strangely hypnotic.
Price: ¥480 for six
Available at: Sakuragitei (inside Ueno Park), 9-84 Ueno-Koen, Taito-ku


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Where to go: The Oki Islands: where time seems to have stood still

Worlds apart: The Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan seem remarkably unchanged by the tides of history that have for millennia washed over them. Some sights on Nishinoshima Island include its Kuniga coastline.

Worlds apart: The Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan seem remarkably unchanged by the tides of history that have for millennia washed over them. Some sights on Nishinoshima Island include its Kuniga coastline.

If you only make one trip while you are here, make sure it’s to the Oki Islands! They are little patches of ye olde Nihon as yet untainted by pachinko, high-rise apartments or junk-food joints: perfect antidotes to big-city stress.

A mere three-hour ferry ride across the Sea of Japan separates the Oki Islands from the coast of western Honshu, but it’s as if you voyage through three centuries getting there. If it wasn’t for the roads, the inhabited islands would be all forest.

A couple of hours after our boat cast off from Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture, we espied the first islands — black volcanic humps like debris from some cosmic collision. Soon the ferry will be weaving through a veritable maze of these extrusions, some just bare rocky outcrops, others large and rugged and dark with pine trees.

There are some 180 islands in the Oki chain, none of them very big and only four that are inhabited.

Ancient Takuhi Shrine that emerges from a hilltop cave.

Ancient Takuhi Shrine that emerges from a hilltop cave.

The best place to stay is at a minshuku (guesthouse). Often times the people running the place will be waiting for you in anticipation.

There is actually a minshuku located just across the street from the ferry terminal on the second largest island; Nishinoshima (pop. 3,900). On the wall outside, your name will be written in chalk on a slate. Not a good hideaway for fugitives. In your room, a pot of freshly-made green tea and some adzuki-bean pastries awaited you on a low table — the only furniture in the room besides a television.

Nishinoshima boasts several must-sees, and your first priorityshould be a boat tour of the island’s spectacular Kuniga coastline: a 7-km stretch of wave-eroded basalt cliffs, including the perpendicular Mantengai. At 257 meters, it’s Japan’s tallest cliff.

The small launch wil go past dreamlike rock formations with names such as Palace of the Dragon King and Bridge to Heaven. Then the boat will head straight for the red and black cliffs. Really something worth wile.

After this the boat will enter the Cavern of Light and Dark. It will be slow sailing  as you inch into the darkness.

Any time now, you might think, we’re going to hear an awful wrenching as the boat’s hull is ripped open from below or on the jagged walls that are now no more than a finger’s breadth away on either side.

Still you don’t have to worry too much though. After a few eerie moments, a crack of light will appear up ahead and you will emerge safely into sunshine and open sea again.

Isles of wonder: A colorful festival parade on Nakanoshima Island (aka Ama)

Isles of wonder: A colorful festival parade on Nakanoshima Island (aka Ama).

Once you are back on dry land, you will hear a voice emanated from a loudspeaker at the Town Hall reminding everyone within earshot that it was 6 o’clock, and urging all young children to go home.

If you stay at this particular guesthouse across the ferry, your landlady will call you down to dinner and you will get to sit on the tatami floor at a long low table shared with other guests. The colorful fare mainly comprises of superfresh seafood, including lots of sashimi ika (squid), hirogi (a kind of scallop with bright purple or orange shells) and sazae (turbo sea snails), as well as a whole tai (sea bream) accompanied by local vegetables such as burdock and lotus roots.

The next day you should go exploring the small town. Squid are a major concern in the Oki Islands, where fishing and tourism are about the only money-spinners. Everywhere you will see the squid being dried. At the end of one tiny inlet, there is a small but beautiful Yurahime Shrine, dedicated to the guardian deity of the sea and said to have been founded in 842. And as if they sense its spirituality, sometimes in winter so many little cephalopods throng the adjacent Ikayosenohama (Squid-calling Harbor) that you can catch them with your hands.

Squid drying on Nishinoshima Island.

Squid drying on Nishinoshima Island.

Another fun activity is to find the mysterious Takuhi (Burning Fire) Shrine, hidden away near the island’s highest point. If you want to go there, then just hop a bus as far as it goes, and then take a taxi to take you from the bus stop to the foot of the mountain.You’d best ask the ladies at the tourist office to book one for you ahead of time.

Along the wat be sure to enjoy the view as you take the path up the mountain. The countryside is delightful: Narrow roads wind round soft green hillsides dotted with mossy shrines and cattle with oddly twisted horns graze on the slopes while black butterflies the size of bats flop around like lovesick fedoras.

When the asphalt runs out and a steep overgrown path begins, the taxi driver will have to stop. The rest of the way you will have to walk.

During the hike, the constant chirping of cicadas revs up to an intimidating roar as you will beat your way up the narrow path through thick dank vegetation. The tree cover will give you a welcome shelter from the sun’s midday ferocity. Occasional clearings offere stunning views of the shimmering golden sea, with mist-shrouded islands stretching away like a dragon’s tail.

Fortunately, the mountain’s summit is at a none-too-lofty 450 meters, and before long you will be confronted by a magnificent 800-year-old cedar that stands before the shrine up there — a building every bit as impressive as you’d might expect. Built out from a huge cave in the mountainside in the mid-Heian Period (794-1185), so that it’s half inside it and half in the open, the astounding structure looks as if its builders just gave up and left it there.

Like Yurahime, Takuhi is dedicated to the sea-guardian deity. In olden times, islanders used to light a beacon outside it to guide boats into the bay in bad weather — hence it’s called either the Burning Fire or Torch shrine. Hiroshige made a woodcut print of the scene, and boats still sound their horns when they come in sight of this shrine.

Before leaving Nishinoshima, don’t forget to go to the Kuniga cliffs, to see them from above. A regular bus service takes you from the port to the wide-open spaces of the clifftops, with their delicious breezes and lush pastures. Up there, it felt a world away from the humid claustrophobia of Takuhi’s snake-and-mozzie kingdom. The cliff-top trail has been voted one of Japan’s Best 100 Hikes.

Cows and horses rule these heights. They love to prove the point by resolutely dozing in the middle of the road, holding up traffic as if in sit-down protest. Atop the cliffs in blissful satori, we watched entranced as wraithlike wisps of mist streamed over the rocky coves below.

If you have time left, then tak a short ferry ride over to Nakanoshima, more commonly known as Ama. If you are there in the summer you might even get to experience a matsuri (festival). The cool evening will bring a colorful parade, spurred on by mighty taiko drums and the consumption of much beer and sake — along with lashings of scrumptious festival food: takoyaki (octopus balls), baked sweet potatoes, dumplings, taiyaki (fish-shaped buns) and, of course, heaps of skewered roast squid. Definitely fun to experience.

Japan is known for its amazing Hanabi (fireworks) shows which are usually held in summer. These small islands have they own  stellar fireworks display, launched from a floating platform out in the bay, a free bus will be arranged to take everyone home.

Next morning take a stroll to Oki Shrine. There will be priest walking around in white tunic and baggy purple pants and they might even tell you the story of how the emperors Go-Toba (1180-1239) and Go-Daigo (1288-1339) were banished to these islands. Still as banishings go, this really wouldn’t have been such a terrible punishment.

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Japanese customs: How Japanese love word plays

Highest form of flattery: Sharaku (right), a now-defunct hand-held copier from Fuji Xerox derived its name from the 18th century illustrator Tōshūsai Sharaku, known for such works as ‘The Actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei’ (left).

When an American add man was asked to write for a new liquid plant-nutrient, he imediately could not resist. As soon as he saw the name of the product, 早根早起 (Hayane Hayaoki), he smiled at this example of linguistic creativity. The four characters translate loosely as “early root, early sprouting”; but when spoken out loud, a native listener would recognize the phrase as the idiom equivalent to “early to bed, early to rise.” The clever substitution of the character 根 (ne, root) for 寝 (ne, sleep) gives the name of the product a completely different meaning when written out.

Will this original ネーミング (nēmingu, naming) move gardeners to 財布のヒモを緩める (saifu no himo wo yurumeru, loosen their purse strings) and purchase the new product? It certainly can’t hurt. Japanese folk have a great appreciation for this kind of だじゃれっぽい (dajareppoi, punnish) word play, which — where products are concerned — demonstrates their 創造力 (sōzōryoku, creativity) and 商魂 (shōkon, entrepreneurial spirit).

One of the most successful examples of rebranding in recent memory was that of apparel manufacturer Renown’s men’s socks to 通勤快足 (Tsūkin Kaisoku, Business Express). The socks, made with a new type of fast-drying, antibacterial fabric that discouraged unpleasant odors, were originally put on sale in 1981 under the name “Fresh Life,” but sales were disappointing.

Normally, 通勤快速 (also read tsukin kaisoku) is a type of commuter express train that usually runs only on weekdays. As opposed to 快速 (kaisoku, express), the word 快足 (kaisoku) means nimble-footed. But kaihas a second meaning of pleasant or happy, such as in the words 快眠 (kaimin, pleasant sleep) or 快報 (kaihō, joyful news). So here, tsūkin kaisoku takes on the nuance of “commuting to work on happy feet” — something a salaryman can definitely relate to.

Relaunched with fanfare in 1987 with that catchy new name, the socks achieved バカ売れ (baka-ure, sold like crazy), with revenues rising from ¥1.3 billion in 1987 to ¥4.5 billion two years later.

Another of my favorite examples of this kind of imaginative branding is 写楽 (Sharaku), a now-defunct hand-held copier from Fuji Xerox. Those familiar with art of the Edo Period (1603-1867) will immediately recognize Sharaku as the name of an 18th-century woodblock-print artist, whose full name was 東洲斎写楽 (Tōshūsai Sharaku). In addition to his distinctive drawing technique, Sharaku remains controversial because his illustrious career spanned only 10 months, and to this day nobody’s exactly sure who he really was.

Move ahead two centuries to 1988, when Fuji Xerox chose Sharaku as the name for its new hand-held scanner/copier. The name works because it combines 写 (sha), the second character of 複写 (fukusha, to reproduce) with 楽 (raku, easy), conveying the image of ease of operation when copying images.

Stationery manufacturer Sekisei Co. Ltd. enjoyed success when it named its ring binders for organizing office documents 発泡美人 (Happō Bijin, Foaming Beauty). Normally happō bijin — using the characters 八方美人 and meaning a beauty in eight directions, i.e., all points of the compass — is equivalent to calling someone a flunky or a yes-man, a person who tries to be all things to all people. The 八方 (happō, eight directions) is replaced by 発泡 (happō), here meaning foamed plastic, the material used to produce the binders. The name suggests that arranging these on the shelves will give any office a well-organized appearance.

Want some more? How about the powdered bath salt called (Nyūyōku Taimuzu), named after the New York Times newspaper. Nyūyoku means to enter the bath, but closely enough resembles ニューヨーク (Nyūyōku), the Japanese pronunciation of New York, so that no one will miss the point.

In 1976, Nissin Food Products Co., Ltd. gave its range of instant 焼きそば (yakisoba, fried noodles) the name U.F.O. (pronounced like “you-hoe”). The initials U, F and O are an acronym used to describe the noodles therein as being うまい (umai, tasty), 太い (futoi, thick) and 大きい (ōki, large).

Back in the early 1990s, Nissan Motor Co. sold a 1.5-liter light commercial van with a distinctive rounded body that resembled the shell of a snail. Its name, “S-Cargo” (the “S” stood for small), was a clever play on escargot, the French word for “snail.”

Sharp last year launched sales of a high-tech robot vacuum cleaner named “Cocorobo.” Its name combines 心 (kokoro, heart), and ロボ (robo, robot).

Some product names, such as カルピス (Calpis), occasionally grate on foreign ears. A popular beverage made with fermented lactic acid, Calpis is said to derive from calcium and sarpis, which is Sanskrit for “butter taste.” The company’s founder, Kaiun Mishima (1878-1974), took his inspiration from the Mongolian beverage airag, made from fermented mare’s milk.


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Oyaji gyagu; the Japanese sense of humour

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two men aged around 50 enter a sushi restaurant. One orders a raincoat, the other a garage. What looks like the beginning of a “Monty Python” sketch is in fact the stuff of a most typicaloyaji gyagu (おやじギャグ), or old man’s joke/gag. Such jokes normally center around words with similar or identical reading, but with an entirely different meaning. Linguists call these homophones.

In the above case, the joke derives from an intended misreading of the words kappa and shako. While kappa in the context of a sushi restaurant is usually interpreted as an abbreviated form of kappa maki (かっぱ巻き, a cucumber sushi roll), kappa when spelled differently (合羽) means raincoat. This is also available as an English loanword, レインコート, which is what one of the guys used when making his order. As for the other one, his joke was based on the fact that shako (蝦蛄) is not only a type of shrimp, but also a dry place to leave your kuruma (car) (車庫), which in Japanese is equally known by the katakana word ガレージ, garage.

One common feature of the oyaji gyagu is that those homophones frequently occur in a single, more or less meaningful, phrase. Here are a few well-known examples of this type:

• Sukī ga suki (スキーが好き, I like skiing)

• Shio ga nai no wa shō ga nai (塩がないのはしょうがない, It can’t be helped if there is no salt)

• Kono ikura wa ikura? (このイクラはいくら?, How much is this salmon roe?)

• Kon ya kū no wa konnyaku (今夜食うのは蒟蒻, “I’ll eat konnyaku [devil’s tongue jelly] this evening.”)

If you don’t think that’s funny, don’t worry. Here is a paraphrase of what the Japanese Wikipedia site states about this type of joke: The oyaji gyaguis simple and easy to understand. The cheaper it is, the more it poses a dilemma to the hearer, who may perfectly get the joke, but just won’t be able to laugh about it. More than entertaining the hearer of such jokes, it seems that the pleasure is with the teller. Nevertheless the latter normally expects some laughter from the former.

Although in a larger humor survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun in 2005, only 18 percent of respondents openly admitted they disliked oyaji gyagu, the most frequent types of reaction, in my experience as a hearer and occasional teller (yes, I confess), are complaints about a sudden chill in the room (アッ寒い!, Ah, samui!), an interjection of disapproving disbelief (ハッ? Hah?), or a very uncomfortable silence (・・・).


Nevertheless, the oyaji gyagu is much better than its reputation. The idea of selling different meanings by the same sound value, which is basically what an oyagi gyagu is all about, has been of fundamental importance in the development of writing. For example, the Chinese character 来 was originally used to denote a certain type of wheat. That it is the standard character for “come” today is due to the simple coincidence that the two words happened to have the same pronunciation. As no character was available yet for the latter, some (Chinese) oyaji at some ancient point in history came up with the idea of using the wheat character for “come” as well, and the same thing soon happened with many other characters such as 足 (foot), which was later on also used for “to suffice,” or 万 (10,000), which derives from the character for scorpion. The technical term for this is “rebus principle,” but in effect it is nothing but a large-scale application of the oyaji gyagu, with unforeseeably great consequences for civilization.

Oyaji gyagu also play an important role in Japanese poetry, where they go by the name of kakekotoba (掛詞, pun). Though few people would necessarily want to connect these two things, it is a fact that kakekotobawork on exactly the same principle as a decent oyaji gyagu. Waka poets are famous for wordplays that exploit the ambiguity of terms like, say, kiku, which can mean both “listen” (聞く) and “chrysanthemum” (菊), or matsu, which depending on spelling is either “wait” (待つ) or “pine tree” (松). It’s a very thin line from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Back in the present, the oyaji gyagu principle has also found its way into product naming and into Netspeak. To give just one example of the latter: A recent catchphrase on discussion sites such as Mixi or 2channel is the somewhat enigmatic term imakita sangyō (今北産業), which literally translates as something like “now north industry.” The term is normally used by people who have just joined in (今来た, ima kita) a running discussion thread and want to get a brief, three-line (三行, san gyō) summary of what’s happened so far. Again, the thing that makes it all work is an oyaji gyagu homophony of the terms in question (plus, initially at least, a mistyped kanji by some user, oyaji or other).

What’s so funny about the oyaji gyagu, then? Nothing, maybe, but its importance for Japanese society and culture — both high and rather low — can hardly be overrated.

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News about Japan: Abe is trying to unlock the untapped potential of the Japanese women workforce

The two most important policies in Abenomics’ “third arrow” — structural reform — are increasing labor mobility and keeping more women in the labor force so that they can help raise Japan’s GDP. These two issues are linked at the hip, and the economic potential that could be unlocked is vast. We are talking here about Abe Shinzo, the prime minister of Japan.

Amazingly the biggest reason is that Japan’s female population still remains largely untapped as a source of economic growth. According to a Goldman Sachs study, if Japan could increase its employment rate to match its male employment rate of 80 percent, its workforce could potentially expand by 8.2 million people, boosting GDP by as much as 14 percent.

Yet without enough feasible options to manage both child care and work responsibilities, many women will continue to opt out of the labor force just when they are hitting stride — a loss Japan cannot afford when its population is shrinking.

To his credit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted women as a “central key” to Japan’s productivity when unveiling his growth strategy. Abe called for the creation of more child-care centers, the elimination of waiting lists, and even asked companies to voluntarily extend maternity leave from the current 18 months up to a maximum of three years. There is even discussion about tax deductibility for child care and domestic help costs.

These would all be steps in the right direction. If more Japanese women can get their careers back on track after giving birth, they will not only help slow long-term demographic shrinkage, but they will also boost GDP while increasing future tax revenues and easing Japan’s fiscal dilemma. At the same time, their peers will also gain confidence that they too can have children and return to work, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.

In Japan’s case, the impact of this shift, and of better work-life balance in general, would be massive. Accordingly, no stone should be left unturned in the search for effective measures.

But one doesn’t have to think very far “out of the box” to find policies that can be easily implemented. The use of foreign “domestic helpers” is an obvious case in point.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, it is common for families to hire a foreign domestic helper to look after the children, as well as to assist with housework. This is doubly advantageous in freeing up women to seek employment because they are also able to off-load some of their domestic work

Unfortunately, this practice is almost unheard of in Japan, and in fact is not even legally possible for Japanese citizens or permanent residents. Why? Because Japan’s antiquated immigration regulations only permit foreigners with a certain visa status (such as “diplomat” or “investor/business manager”) to “sponsor” foreign domestic helpers.

By simply relaxing irrational immigration laws like these, the Abe administration could easily give Japanese women an entirely new option for child-care support, instead of having to endlessly wait for day-care positions to open up. M

oreover, this is one option that would not cost the Japanese government a single yen in subsidies. Quite the contrary, it would increase tax revenues and GDP, because domestic helpers and working women both pay taxes, and usually consume more than a single housewife.

In many ways helpers are more supportive of a working woman’s needs than child-care centers. For example, the operating hours of many day-care centers are inconvenient for women with full-time jobs, but a helper’s hours can be tailored to the needs of the family.

Aside from child care, foreign domestic workers are necessary to fill the severe shortage of nurses and other elderly caregivers that Japan’s aging society faces. This supply-demand gap is already large today, and inevitably will grow larger as the society ages further and the long-term increase in the number of single-child families takes its toll. (Actually, this particular gap isn’t just about women. Many male single children will also end up having to take care of their aging parents, thus creating even more demand for foreign domestic workers.)

It is high time for Japan to tackle these issues proactively, on both a cultural and national policy level. Keeping women in the labor force is no longer just a “women’s issue,” but rather an issue of the highest national urgency. With luck, the sense of that urgency will not be lost after the Upper House election this July, when Abe plans to turn his attention to constitutional reform.

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Must see:The cat that saved a Japanese train station

Meet Tama, Japan’s cutest stationmaster, and her adorable cat-shaped station home.

Some 30 minutes from central Wakayama City in southeast Japan is the quiet, rural neighborhood of Kinokawa.
Despite the area‘s un-remarkableness, its train station attracts no shortage of visitors, most under the age of 12.These tourists may not know what there is to see or do in wider Kinokawa, nor do they seem particularly interested — all they want to do is visit Kishi train station, which serves Kinokawa.
They come seeking time, and hopefully a photo, with Kishi’s stationmaster, a calico cat named Tama.
Tama’s duty is napping in her office (a converted ticket booth) and her salary is practical — an unlimited supply of cat food. Another lazy-looking cat in relatively comfy digs. So far, like the area she resides in, Tama seems unremarkable. Except that this feline has actually saved the station from financial ruin.
It’s a 14-kilometer train ride from Wakayama City to Kishi Station in the outskirts of the city

For years, the journey was lightly traveled. As a result, Nankai Electric Railway, which managed the route, closed down in 2004 due to financial difficulties.

Wakayama Electric Railway took over the Kishigawa Line.

As a way to revitalize the station, in 2007 the company appointed Tama — a stray cat adopted by the station manager and station resident since 1999 — to serve as stationmaster.

Look carefully, the station is shaped like a cat!

Dolled up with stationmaster cap and badge, Tama soon became famous not simply as the mascot of the station, but the entire area. It proved quite the catcall — Tama pulled in the crowds. Since her appointment, the station has witnessed a healthy growth of visitors arriving just to see Tama. More importantly, the train line was able to continue service for local residents.

Even the seats are shaped like cats!

Kishi station currently houses a Tama-themed cafe, as well as a souvenir shop with items ranging from the usual array of pens, staplers and other supplies to Kishi Station uniforms. Tama’s cuteness is exploited wherever possible — from the chairs to the cakes in the cafe to the cat-shaped station building itself. Wakayama Electric Railway now operates three adorably themed trains: Strawberry Train, Tama Train and Toy Train.

Here is a picture of the toy train

There’s also a cat stationmaster apprentice, Nitama, who shoulders some responsibilities for Tama. Sleeping and doing nothing is hard work, you know? Tama works from Tuesday to Thursday; Nitama substitutes for Tama on weekends. Cat working hours are a very agreeable 10 a.m.-4p.m. Done with Tama and the station? Fruit picking and visiting local shrines are also popular family activities in the neighborhood.

One car of the now famous “Tama train”. 

How to get there

Get a direct ticket to Kishi Station at platform 9 at JR Wakayama Station — follow the cat paw prints on the floor. A timetable is available for visitors to look up departures of special trains to Kishi Station.

This website (In Japanese) has more details.

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Where to go: Shinjuku Golden Gai, After7

Shinjuku Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街) is a small area of ShinjukuTokyoJapan, famous both as an area of architectural interest and for its nightlife. It is composed of a network of six narrow alleys, connected by even narrower passageways which are just about wide enough for a single person to pass through. Over 200 tiny shanty-style bars, clubs and eateries are squeezed into this area.


Golden Gai was known for prostitution before 1958, when prostitution became illegal. Since then it has developed as a drinking area, and at least some of the bars can trace their origins back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, many buildings in Tokyo were set on fire by Yakuza, so the land could be bought up by developers, but Golden Gai survived because some of its supporters took turns to guard the area at night.


Golden Gai is a few minutes walk from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, between the Shinjuku City Office and the Hanazono Shrine. Its architectural importance is that it provides a view into the relatively recent past of Tokyo, when large parts of the city resembled present-day Golden Gai, particularly in terms of the extremely narrow lanes and the tiny two-storey buildings. Nowadays, most of the surrounding area has been redeveloped: The street plans have been changed to create much wider roads and larger building plots, and most of the buildings themselves are now much larger high- or medium-rise developments. This has left Golden Gai as one of a decreasing number of examples of the nature of Tokyo before Japan’s ‘economic miracle‘, that took place in the latter half of the 20th century.

Typically, the buildings are just a few feet wide and are built so close to the ones next door that they nearly touch. Most are two-storey, having a small bar at street level and either another bar or a tiny flat upstairs, reached by a steep set of stairs. None of the bars are very large; some are so small that they can only fit five or so customers at one time.The buildings are generally ramshackle, and the alleys are dimly lit, giving the area a very scruffy and run-down appearance. However, Golden Gai is not a cheap place to drink, and the clientele that it attracts is generally well off.

Shinjuku Golden Street Theatre is a tiny theatre in one corner of Golden Gai that puts on mainly comedy shows.


Bars in Golden Gai are known in particular for the artistic affinities of their patrons. Golden Gai is well known as a meeting place for musicians, artists, directors, writers, academics and actors, including many celebrities.Many of the bars only welcome regular customers, who initially should be introduced by an existing patron, although many others welcome non-regulars, some even making efforts to attract overseas tourists by displaying signs and price lists in English.

Many of the bars have a particular theme, such as jazzR&Bkaraokepunk rock or flamenco, and their ramshackle walls are sometimes liberally plastered with movie, film and concert posters. Others cater to customers with a particular interest, such as goexploitation films, or horse racing. Most of the bars don’t open until 9 or 10pm, so the area is very quiet during the day and early evening.

After7 Bar ni iku

Once a month a special event is hosted in this part of the underbelly of Tokyo. If you really want to experience the real Tokyo I recommend you go to After 7 Bar ni iku. On this night you can buy a special ticket for only  2000 yen. With this card you do not have to pay a cover charge and can enter at least 10 different bars in the Golden Gai area. A friend of mine has been there a few times and he highly recommends it. Forget Roppongi where all the foreigners go to party. Instead experience the ‘real Tokyo’ and go to Golden Gai. The next one is scheduled for tomorrow so be quick and get your ticket now!

More info

For more information and ordering a ticket, please go to: (website is in Japanese)

Where to go in Golden Gai

Once you are in Golden Gai, you are wondering where to go. Here is an overview of the best bars to visit in this lively area.

With a staggering 200 bars and eateries crammed into a maze of six narrow streets, Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district is one of the more rewarding drinking destinations in central Tokyo — if you’re feeling adventurous, that is.

Sandwiched between Shinjuku Ward Office and Hanazono Shrine, a short walk from the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, this collection of ramshackle buildings has resisted development since World War II, leaving it a mysterious and compelling hangout for musicians, filmmakers, artists and booze-hounds alike.

Exclusive entry

Be warned, however — Golden Gai is not cheap. Prices are almost universally high and most bars will sting you with a seating charge.

Some will even turn you away outright, preferring to save their limited seating for regular customers. But, there are plenty of bars in the area that will give you a warm welcome, especially those with younger owners.

Also, look out for the Nouryou Kansha-sai festival that’s held every August, when the more progressive watering holes throw open their doors to newcomers and drop their cover charges. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

In the meantime, while there’s no definitive best-of list laying bare Golden Gai’s many unique and charming establishments, here’s a selection that we particularly love.

1. Square

“This isn’t a titty bar!” howls the barmaid at Square, anxious that we might mistake the mammary-minded conversation of the young lads at the counter for shop policy. And indeed it’s not — though there’s plenty of cheeky fun to be had nonetheless.

The fetish-wear that lines the walls and the signed posters of female pro wrestlers go some way to suggest a well-meaning spirit of deviance imbuing this otherwise perfectly normal little boozer, where pop monsters such as Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson play (not too loudly) over the stereo.

It’s not a gay bar, either, but it does seem to attract LBG and trans-whatever clientele alongside the “straighties.” To put it another way — at Square, you’ll feel welcome whoever you are.

3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3203 8450. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-5 a.m. Cover charge ¥500 including a side dish, drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit).

2. Asyl

Run by “Abe-chan,” a world music nut in his mid-40s who also writes about Korean pop for a Japanese magazine, Asyl is a haven for lovers of Desi beats, Algerian hip-hop, bhangra, K-pop and some even broader musical ephemera.

Although it’s cluttered with bottles and stacks of CDs (that give the place natural character) and is only about the size of a small walk-in closet, Asyl still manages to squeeze in seats for half a dozen customers.

Autographs adorn the walls (including those of a Korean rapper and “Noel and Liam Gallagher,” though Abe says the latter were actually scribbled by a couple of visiting Mancunian pranksters), and the boss’s warm sense of humor quickly spreads to the friendly clientele. As with many Golden Gai bars, you’ll make new drinking pals easily at Asyl.

3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (90) 3910 0605. Open daily 8 p.m.-5 a.m. Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥600. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.

3. Albatross G

With seating on three floors, Albatross G is a sprawling pub — by Golden Gai standards, at least.

It’s barely a couple of meters wide, yet somehow fits two tables, as well as an engraved dark-wood counter on its ground floor, with another bar on the second floor and a sort of balcony on the third, to which the bartender underneath passes up drinks with outstretched arms.

Set in a deep red hue, the place certainly gives the impression of thrift-shop splendor. The ceilings are crowded with fake chandeliers, the walls mingling crucifixes with stuffed animal heads and mirrors in ornate frames.

And indeed, this is an ideal den for the indie-rock crowd, with a cooler-than-thou soundtrack and occasional art exhibitions on the thrid floor to boot. The staff can be a bit on the surly side, and your cover charge gets you the tiniest bowl of popcorn you’ll ever see in your life, but hey — that’s all part of its charm.

5th Avenue, 1-1-7 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3203 3699. Open Sunday-Thursday 8 p.m.-5 a.m., Friday-Saturday 8 p.m.-7 a.m. Cover charge ¥300 (including a snack), drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.

4. Bar Plastic Model

Bar Plastic Model is a shrine to the plasticized culture of the 1980s, from the toys that adorn its counter (a couple of Rubik’s Cubes, which owner Kei Sekine can solve in front of your eyes, and a bunch of Gundam and Urusei Yatsura figures) to the mass-market cartoon heroes of the period (such as Doraemon, whose visage graces the spirits tumblers).

And then there’s the extensive selection of lovingly preserved records that line the bar itself, taking in new-wave, punk, hardcore and old-school anime themes and spun on a full DJ setup complete with oversized amp.

Bar Plastic Model counts among its regulars renegade videogame director Suda51, who even featured the bar in his game “No More Heroes.”

With its white concrete walls and counter, the real Bar Plastic Model is one of the brighter joints in Golden Gai — and neither as synthetic, nor as disposable as its name suggests.

G2 Street 1/F, 1-1-10 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 5273 8441. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-5 a.m., Sunday 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Cover charge ¥700 (including a snack), drinks from ¥600. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.

5. Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu

A good bar-crawl often ends in hospitalization — so why not combine the two with a visit to Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (“Tachibana examination room”)? One of Golden Gai’s stranger haunts, this tiny second-floor establishment is in thrall to all things medical.

Its walls are festooned with biology diagrams, its counter littered with model skulls and skeletons, a real pickled baby rodent in a vial, and a gigantic silicon statue of a penis that sways cheerfully when nudged.

A barmaid in a nurse’s uniform fixes drinks in glass beakers while the food is served in metal kidney dishes.

Original cocktails include the appealingly named Chounai Senjou (“colonic irrigation”), a shochu-base drink with a stick of sour dried apricot designed to look like a turd, and Kanchou (“enema”), a sticky-sweet blend of gin, cherry-blossom liqueur and an energy drink.

The bar has just one table, which you’ll share with the other customers — much like an operating theater, when you think about it. Oh, and there’s a ¥5,000 penalty if you fall asleep, though quite frankly, we’d be more worried that a snooze would result in having our organs harvested. Drink safe.

3rd Street 2/F, 1-1-8 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (3) 3208 4148. Open Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-4 a.m., Sun 4 p.m.-midnight. Cover charge ¥1,500 (including a side dish), drinks from ¥500. Station: Shinjuku (East Exit). Website.

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Must see:Renovated Japanese house Hagiso is Tokyo’s “smallest” art complex

It’s a little-kept secret that almost all of the interesting recent new art spaces in Tokyo are “recycled” spaces — ones that are reusing an old building or facility.

A few years ago 3331 Arts Chiyoda opened in the former Rensei Junior High School near Akihabara, while Tokyo Denki University in Kanda was turned temporarily into Trans Arts Tokyo festival in 2012 (set to return in autumn 2013). And for years, Gallery ef in Asakusa has used a former Japanese kurastorehouse to host art events and performances, while SCAI The Bathhouse in Yanaka, the major art gallery housed in a former sento, surely needs no introduction.

For a city that often seems obsessed with the new and frequently displays a profane disregard for preserving its heritage, these recycled spaces are exciting even just for daring to be old — and certainly a world removed from the cultivated swank of other new art venues in Shibuya or Roppongi.

hagiso tokyo

Hagiso before it was renovated

Joining SCAI in the quiet shitamachi neighborhood of Yanaka now is Hagiso, a former house that has been converted into the “smallest cultural facility complex” by a group of students from the nearby Tokyo University of the Arts.

hagiso tokyo

Hagiso, the newly renovated Japanese house in Yanaka that is now a venue for art and other events

The two-storey building sits rather serenely in its new classy coating of black, nestling among the temples of one of the oldest parts of Tokyo.

When renovating the site, the team behind Hagiso have cleaned up but retained the original traditional wooden fittings, adding a very peaceful cafe downstairs, while turning much of the rest of the building into spaces for changing events.

hagiso tokyo cafe

Hagi Cafe

For the inaugural show, ‘Hagiennale 2013: Third Life’, multiple artists added installations and exhibits all around the building, from the toilet to stairway, and almost all of the walls on both floors.

hagiso tokyo

You can look right out at the exhibition space while enjoying a cup of coffee.

hagiso tokyo third life

Downstairs exhibition space during ‘Hagiennale 2013: Third Life’

There were also dance performances on the opening night, plus ‘Third Life’ also featured a pop-up crafts shop in one room, offering jewellery and accessories by several designers.

hagiso tokyo

The gift shop in Hagi Room

hagiso tokyo

Performance on the opening night of ‘Third Life’

Even the attic, which has been left exposed, can be utilized for projecting artworks. The upstairs also now includes an atelier, hair salon and design office.

From 2004 Hagiso was a share house and studio for artist residencies, following a fifty year-stint as a rental property. It played host to the ‘Hagiennale 2012′, showing students’ work, which attracted 1,500 visitors.

It was then set to be demolished but a successful crowd funding campaign on Campfire led to enough money being raised to keep Hagiso going as a new exhibition and cultural facility.

Hagiso also has a nice sense of humor. We love this graphic they made, comparing the size of their venue with other famous “multi-purpose” facilities like Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Sky Tree.

hagiso tokyo

Why Hagiso can claim to be Tokyo’s “smallest” cultural facility! Can you work out what the other buildings are?

The opening event ‘Hagiennale 2013: Third Life’ has now closed but Hagiso will continue to host exhibitions, performances, talks, screenings and more.



3-10-25 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Transport Sendagi Station (Chiyoda line), Nippori Station (Yamanote, Keihin-Tohoku, Joban, Keisei lines)

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Things to do this week in Tokyo

Nobuyoshi Araki: EroReal

Until Sat Jun 22, 2013 Taka Ishii Gallery

Porn mags? ‘They’re doing it wrong,’ says Nobuyoshi Araki. ‘It’s not about an ambiance or concept; it’s about being real. Not realism, but real – ero-real.’ As someone whose work has often teetered on the line between art and porn, the 72-year-old photographer should probably know. His latest solo show at Taka Ishii Gallery – the 20th to date – offers an alternative to pin-up clichés, featuring 50 of Araki’s attempts to evoke what he calls ‘erotic presence.’ Sometimes the models even get to keep their clothes on.


Open May 25-June 22 Closed Sun, Mon & hols

Time Tue-Sat noon-7pm

Admission Free

Venue Taka Ishii Gallery

Address 5F, 1-3-2 Kiyosumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Transport Kiyosumishirakawa station (Hanzomon, Oedo lines), exit A3.

Mitsuaki Iwago: Go With Cats

水 5月 29 – 月 6月 10, 2013 Mitsukoshi Nihombashi main store
Well-known wildlife photographer Mitsuaki Iwago latches onto one of the internet’s favourite memes for his latest exhibition, which coincides with the release of a new, feline-focused photobook. Go With Cats collects 222 images (spot the pun, Japanese readers!) from Iwago’s many encounters with his furry friends, with sections devoted to his travels overseas, around Japan, and portraits of his own pets. Look out for the photographer himself at a series of signings, held on May 29-31 and June 1, 2, 8 and 9.


Open May 29-June 10

Time Daily 10am-7pm (June 10 until 5pm)

Admission Adults ¥800, high school & junior high scholl students ¥600, elementary and under free

Telephone 03 3241 3311

Venue Mitsukoshi Nihombashi main store

Address 1-4-1 Nihombashi-Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Transport Mitsukoshi-mae Station (Ginza, Hanzomon lines)

Irma Thomas

Wed May 29 – Thu May 30, 2013 Billboard Live
The Grammy-winning ‘Soul Queen of New Orleans‘ – who started her career aged 13, singing in a Baptist choir and whose 1962 single, ‘It’s Raining’, was revived by Jim Jarmusch in his movie Down By Law – stretches her impressive lungs at Billboard Live.


Open May 29-30

Time 1st show: Doors 5.30pm. Gig 7pm; 2nd show: Doors 8.45pm. Gig 9.30pm

Admission Service area ¥8,800, casual area ¥6,800

Venue Billboard Live

Address Tokyo Midtown Garden Terrace 4F, 9-7-4, Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan

Transport Roppongi Station ( Toei Oedo Line, Hibiya Line : Exit 8 )

Grand Recipes of Love Gala Party

Thu May 30, 2013 Grand Hyatt Tokyo (Banquet Rooms)
As Roppongi Hills celebrates its 10th anniversary this spring, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo is getting in on the act with a series of events of its own, the glitziest of which is this black-tie gala party on May 30. ‘Grand Recipes of Love’ kicks off with a round of cocktails, followed by a live cooking station dinner showcasing the hotel’s seven restaurants. Once you’ve polished off dessert, you can take in a gig by Fab Four cover band The Bootleg Beatles, then hit the dancefloor for a disco session that keeps rolling until midnight. Reservations are being taken at 03 4333 8838, and the hotel is offering double rooms at a discounted rate of ¥25,000 to party guests looking to stay the night.


Open May 30

Time 7pm-midnight

Admission ¥35,000

Venue Grand Hyatt Tokyo (Banquet Rooms)

Address 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Roppongi station (Hibiya line), exit 1C; (Oedo line), exit 3.


Komazawa Oktoberfest 2013

Fri May 31 – Sun Jun 9, 2013 Komazawa Olympic Park General Sports Ground
If you happened to miss the October fest in Odaiba and Hibiya park, there is more on the way! Swing by to  Komazawa Olympic Park. This one promises to be the most sedate of the bunch, thanks to a slightly out-of-the-way location, though you can expect the same mix of sauerkraut, sausages and pricey German brews served in proper glass tankards.


Open May 31-June 9

Time Mon-Fri 4pm-10pm, Sat, Sun 11am-10pm

Admission Free

Venue Komazawa Olympic Park General Sports Ground

Address 1-1 Komazawa-Koen, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo

Transport Komazawa-Daigaku Station (Denentoshi line)


Until Sun Jun 2, 2013 National Museum of Western Art
Ueno’s National Museum of Western Art has a surefire blockbuster on its hands with this Raphael exhibition, billed as the first large-scale show of the Renaissance painter’s work ever to be held outside Europe. There will be approximately 20 of his oil paintings and sketches featured, among them Ezekiel’s Vision (pictured), Portrait of a Young Woman (also known as La Muda) and Madonna del Granduca, which is being shown in Japan for the first time. These are complemented by a range of works by Raphael’s contemporaries, including prints and decorative pieces that were based on his paintings and designs.


Open March 2-June 2 Closed Mon (except April 29, May 6), May 7

Time Tue-Sun 9.30pm-5.30pm (Fri until 8pm)

Admission Adults ¥1,500, students ¥1,200, high school & junior high students ¥800

Venue National Museum of Western Art

Address 7-7 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Transport Ueno station (Yamanote line), park exit; (Ginza, Hibiya lines), Shinobazu exit.


Bakuon Film Festival 2013

Fri May 31 – Sat Jun 8, 2013 Kichijoji Baus Theater
Tokyo’s noisiest film festival returns at the start of the summer for another fortnight of ‘explosions of sound’. Bakuon Film Festival started six years ago, with a simple concept: whatever the film, it had to be loud, and it had to sound good. With towering speaker stacks lending an added whallop to each screening, it isn’t for the faint-hearted – and that’s before you factor in special events like the live soundtracked showing of F.W. Murnau’sNosferatu on June 3, courtesy of psychedelic guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto. The program includes some predictably in-yer-face offerings (Natural Born KillersCarrieScanners), though also more low-key entries like Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea and Nicholas Ray’s lost experimental feature, We Can’t Go Home Again. There’s also a special section devoted to Michael Cimino, the cinematic auteur whose career bloomed with The Deer Hunterand then imploded with Heaven’s Gate.


Open May 31-June 8

Time Screening times vary

Admission Regular screenings ¥1,300 (¥3,500 for three); prices vary for special events and screenings

Twitter boid_bakuon

Venue Kichijoji Baus Theater

Address 1-11-23 Kichijoji-Honmachi, Musashino-shi, Tokyo

Transport Kichijoji Station (Chuo, Keio Inokashira lines), north exit.


Cassandra Wilson

Fri May 31 – Sun Jun 2, 2013 Blue Note Tokyo
On last year’s Another Country, esteemed New Orleans jazz singer Cassandra Wilson touched on Italian favorites, plaintive British folk, nimble Brazilian pop, low-slung American blues and more, infusing each with her trademark shadowed sensuality. Expect to hear songs both new and old when she heads to the Blue Note with a band featuring many of her regular foils, including harmonica player Gregoire Maret, guitarist Brandon Ross and dazzling percussionist Mino Cinelu.


Open May 31-June 2

Time May 31 – 1st show: Doors 5.30pm. Gig 7pm; 2nd show: Doors 8.45pm. Gig 9.30pm
June 1-2 – 1st show: Doors 3.45pm. Gig 5pm; 2nd show: Doors 7pm. Gig 8pm

Admission ¥8,400 adv

Venue Blue Note Tokyo

Address Raika Bldg, 6-3-16 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Omotesando station (Chiyoda, Ginza, Hanzomon lines), exit B3.


This Tom Cruise sci-fi flick ‘plods even as it dazzles’


Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough

If one man is to be entrusted with designing our future, we could do worse than architecture graduate Joseph Kosinski. Whatever its other shortcomings, Kosinski’s 2010 directorial debut, Tron: Legacy, constructed a virtual-reality universe so sharply dressed and decorated it was hard to see why the characters kept trying to escape.

He has repeated that trick in his follow-up, Oblivion, a sleek sci-fi playground of gleaming cloud palaces, where French hipsters M83 provide the electro-classical beats and even Tom Cruise’s dirtied radiation suit looks runway-ready. Set in 2077, 60 years after aliens supposedly laid waste to our planet and forced humanity into this chic sky shelter, Oblivionsuggests the apocalypse may not be all bad news.

One person not delighting in this fashion-forward future is Cruise’s plaid-favouring Jack Harper, a former Marine now plundering our scorched Earth for its few remaining resources. With memories of their past lives wiped, Jack and his lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, sadly playing little more than a switchboard operator with benefits) work dutifully under the command of Melissa Leo’s Sally – essentially HAL with a perky Southern drawl. But when one of Jack’s missions turns up an oddly familiar-looking human time-traveller (Olga Kurylenko) from the year 2017, he is forced to question the rules of his existence.

The audience, meanwhile, will be questioning what those rules are in the first place, particularly when Harper is pursued by a parallel human race that has no obvious need for him. Like a haute couture designer with no grasp of ready-to-wear garb, Kosinski continues to lavish far more thought on how his elaborate fantasy worlds look than how they work, and neither the politics nor the human stakes here coalesce into rational or relatable drama. Oblivion finally plods even as it dazzles; a flick through Kosinski’s sketchbook would be quicker and equally impressive.

Oblivion opens nationwide on May 31

Big Beach Festival ’13

Sat Jun 1, 2013 Kaihin-Makuhari Park

The Tokyo-area offshoot of Fatboy Slim’s original Brighton beach party returns to the shores of not-so-scenic Makuhari this June for another dose of bikinis and big beats. Big Beach Festival ranks as one of the biggest dance events of the year, even if much of the assembled crowd is too busy cavorting and ogling to pay much attention to the music. That said, this year’s lineup is looking particularly strong: Norman Cook himself will be headlining, with a live set from fellow ’90s dance heroes Basement Jaxx and big-name DJs including Sasha, Erol Alkan and Maya Janes Coles. Here’s the complete lineup…

Erol Alkan, Ellen Allien, Banvox, Basement Jaxx, May Jane Coles, Fatboy Slim, Hot Since 82, Damian Lazarus, DJ Marc Panther, Nervo, Shinichi Osawa, Red Bull Thre3style Showcase (DJ Kentaro, Four Color Zack, DJ 8man, DJ Iku, DJ Tuskey), Sasha, Sekitova, Tom Staar, System of Survival.


Open June 1

Time Doors 10am. Gig 11am (until 8.30pm)

Admission ¥10,500 adv

Venue Kaihin-Makuhari Park


Eco Life Fair 2013

Sat Jun 1 – Sun Jun 2, 2013 Yoyogi Park
Learn about environmental initiatives and meet some ‘eco idols’ at this annual, government-sponsored festival in Yoyogi Park. The Eco Life Fair looks to be rather more low-key than the park’s recent, insanely crowded Thai and Jamaica festivals, making it a better option if you’re looking for somewhere to take the kids over the weekend.


Open June 1-2

Time June 1 11am-5pm, June 2 10am-5pm

Venue Yoyogi Park

Address 2-1 Yoyogi Kamizounocho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Transport Harajuku Station (Yamanote line), Yoyogi-Koen Station (Chiyoda line), Yoyogi-Hachiman station (Odakyu line)

Great Japan Beer Festival 2013 in Tokyo

Sat Jun 1 – Sun Jun 2, 2013 Yebisu The Garden Hall
It’s the highlight of the year for Tokyo’s hop heads: an afternoon of hardcore tasting, with over 100 varieties of craft beer on offer and the kinds of crowds you might expect on the Yamanote line during rush hour. Once you’ve paid the admission price for the Great Japan Beer Festival, you’re free to drink all the brews you can stomach for the next three-and-a-half hours (though bear in mind that you’ll be supping it from a 50ml tasting glass each time). Rare beers abound, with queues to match. Note that admission is limited to 1,500 people for each session, and the event often sells out, so you might want to pick up a ticket in advance.


Open June 1-2

Time June 1: 11.30am-3pm, 4pm-7.30pm; June 2: 12.30pm-4pm

Admission ¥5,200 on the door; ¥4,800 adv

Venue Yebisu The Garden Hall

Address 1-3-2 Mita, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

Transport Ebisu Station (Yamanote, Shonan-Shinjuku, Hibiya lines)


Daido Moriyama 1965~

Sat Jun 1 – Sat Jul 20, 2013 Gallery 916
That great documenter of Japan’s post-war urban wildlife, photographer Daido Moriyama was recently the subject of a major show at London’s Tate Modern that paired him with American cohort William Klein. Neophytes and dedicated fans are both likely to appreciate this exhibition at the bayside Gallery 916, in which museum co-curator Yoshihiko Ueda (a highly regarded photographer himself) selects 70 key images from Moriyama’s vast catalogue, ranging from 1965 to the present.


Open June 1-July 20 Closed Sun, Mon

Time Tue-Sat 11am-8pm (Sat & hols until 6.30pm)

Admission Adults ¥800

Venue Gallery 916

Address 6F No. 3 Suzue Bldg, 1-14-24 Kaigan, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Takeshiba Station (Yurikamome line), Daimon Station (Oedo line)

Taico Club ’13

Sat Jun 1 – Sun Jun 2, 2013 Kodama no Mori, Nagano Prefecture

Long one of Japan’s better dance festivals, Taico Club put on an unusually strong showing in 2012 – Fuji Rock aside, it was probably our favourite music festival of the year. Can the 2013 edition repeat that success? The programming is as eclectic as ever: techno devotees like Ricardo Villalobos (who’s practically Taico Club’s patron saint), Zip and Magda are joined by the likes of bangin’ Warp Records producer Clark, indie darlings Of Montreal, saxophone colossus Colin Stetson and Diamond Version, a collaboration between avant-garde electronica vets Alva Noto and Byetone (with added help from Japan’s Atsuhiro ‘Optrum’ Ito). Also look out for local festival faves like Denki Groove, Rovo and Zainichi Funk. Here’s the complete lineup:

Cero, Clammbon, Clark, Denki Groove, Diamond Version + Atsuhiro Ito, Eye, JETS (Jimmy Edgar + Travis Stewart aka Machinedrum), Kishi Bashi, Takeshi Kubota, Machinedrum, Magda, Moodman, Nick the Record, Of Montreal, Polaris, Prefuse 73, Rovo, Sambomaster, Colin Stetson, Tycho, Ricardo Villalobos, XXYYXX, Zainichi Funk, Zip

Held at the mountainside Kodama no Mori campsite in Nagano Prefecture, Taico Club is within relatively easy striking distance from Tokyo, albeit more convenient by car than public transport.


Open June 1-2

Time Gates 1pm. Gig 3pm (all night)

Admission ¥12,000 adv, ¥13,000 on the door

Venue Kodama no Mori, Nagano Prefecture


Big Beach Festival ’13 Official After Party

Sat Jun 1, 2013 AgeHa
While the Big Beach Festival is usually a heap of fun, the music itself can tend to get overshadowed by all the drunken revelry, bikini babes and other sources of seaside distraction. If you’d rather hear this year’s impressive lineup in a conventional club setting, the after party at Ageha might be a better option. Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook won’t be playing, but they’ve got DJ sets from Basement Jaxx, Sasha, Erol Alkan, Maya Jane Coles, Nervo and Shinichi Osawa – a high-calibre bill that should go some way to justifying the hefty ¥7,000 door charge (reduced to ¥5,500 if you’ve kept your Big Beach ticket stub).


Open June 1

Time Doors 10pm

Admission ¥7,000 on the door; ¥5,500 with Big Beach ticket stub

Venue AgeHa

Address 2-2-10 Shinkiba, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Transport Shinkiba station (Rinkai, Yurakucho lines).


Circoloco Lifestyle

Sat Jun 1, 2013 Womb
After playing support to Fatboy Slim at the afternoon Big Beach Festival ’13 in Chiba, fellow Ibiza veterans Ellen Allien, Damian Lazarus and System of Sound will be heading to Womb for an all-night session dedicated to one of the Mediterranean island’s most famous parties, Circoloco. Local man Satoshi Otsuki also plays in the main room, with Shintaro.D and Julien Sato in the downstairs lounge.


Open June 1

Time Doors 11pm

Admission ¥4,000 on the door

Venue Womb

Address 2-16 Maruyamacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Transport Shibuya Station (Yamanote, Ginza lines), Hachiko exit; (Hanzomon line), exit 3A.

Up Beat! 10th Anniversary

Sat Jun 1, 2013 Club Asia
What’s a Saturday night party without a few pyrotechnics? Expect some awesome turntable trickery from five-time DMC world team champions Kireek and last year’s overall DMC winner Izoh (the first Japanese DJ to clinch the title since DJ Kentaro in 2002). And if that isn’t all impressive enough already, they’ve also got a performance promised from the capital’s original jackasses, Tokyo Shock Boys.


Open June 1

Time Doors 11pm

Admission ¥3,500 on the door; ¥3,000 with flyer

Venue Club Asia

Address 1-8 Maruyamacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Transport Shibuya station (Yamanote, Ginza lines), Hachiko exit; (Hanzomon line), exit 3A.

All-Night Extreme Cinema

Sat Jun 1, 2013 Shin-Bungeiza
Perhaps wary that the Bakuon Film Festival might lure away some of its regular customers, Shin-Bungeiza is upping the ante with the June 1 installment of its weekly all-nighters. The four ‘extreme’ films start with a couple of recent Time Out faves – po-mo horror The Cabin in the Woodsand bone-crunching actioner The Raid: Redemption – before following up with a couple of rather more humdrum efforts, Nazis-in-space comedy Iron Sky and apocalyptic indie flick Bellflower (pictured).


Open June 1

Time 10pm-5.15am

Admission ¥2,200 on the door; ¥2,000 adv

Venue Shin-Bungeiza

Address Maruhan-Ikebukuro Bldg 3F, 1-43-5 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo

Transport Ikebukuro station (Yamanote, Yurakucho lines), east exit; (Marunouchi line), exit 30

Design Ah!

Until Sun Jun 2, 2013 21_21 Design Sight
It’s all about the kids at 21_21 Design Sight’s first big show of 2013. Put together by the same team behind NHK educational program Design Ah!, the exhibition aims to foster young ‘design minds’ that can wade through the data overload of 21st century life to ‘determine the adequacy of the things around us’ – a laudable aim, if we might say so ourselves. With graphic designer (and show director) Taku Satoh, web designer Yugo Nakamura and musician Keigo ‘Cornelius’ Oyamada overseeing the proceedings, and a welter of hands-on, audio-visual exhibits promised, this should be just as much fun for parents as it is for the little ones.


Open February 8-June 2 Closed Tue (except April 30)

Time Mon, Wed-Sun 10:30am-8pm

Admission Adults ¥1,000, students ¥800, high school & junior high school students ¥500

Telephone 03 3475 2121

Venue 21_21 Design Sight

Address 9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Roppongi Station (Oedo, Hibiya lines), Nogizaka Station (Chiyoda line)

Grand Exhibition of Sacred Treasures from Shinto Shrines

Until Sun Jun 2, 2013 Tokyo National Museum
Japan’s shrines are a repository for all manner of cultural riches, from divine statues to paintings to kimono, but (unsurprisingly) it’s not often that you get to see them all in one place. Timed to coincide with the 62nd relocation of Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, this lavish show collects notable works from shrines throughout Japan, a full 160 of which have been designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.


Open April 9-June 2 Closed Mon (except April 29, May 6), May 7

Time Tue-Thu 9.30am-5pm, Fri 9.30am-8pm, Sat, Sun & hols 9.30am-6pm

Admission Adults ¥1,500, students ¥1,200, high school students ¥900

Venue Tokyo National Museum

Address 13-9 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Transport Ueno Station (Ginza, Hibiya, Yamanote, Keihin-Tohoku lines)

New 10am Film Festival

Until Fri Mar 21, 2014 Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills Rakutenchi Cinemas Kinshicho, Tachikawa Cinema City, Toho Cinemas Fuchu

Toho’s popular 10am Film Festival – a season of morning movie screenings that allowed audiences to revisit classics from Belle de Jour to Back to the Future – looked set to bow out in 2013, yet another victim of the switchover from celluloid to digital. But fret not, cineastes: after some last-minute wrangling, the event will be continuing in a new, all-digital format. That’s not the only change, either – there are now four Tokyo-area cinemas taking part, with each film now getting an extended, two week run. The following list is for screenings at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills; see the official website for details of screenings at other participating cinemas (Japanese only):

April 6-19: The Last Adventure (Les aventuriers) (1967)
April 20-May 3: Roman Holiday (1953)
May 4-17: Pretty Woman (1990)
May 18-31: West Side Story (1961)
June 1-14: Rio Bravo (1959)
June 15-28: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
June 29-July 12: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
July 13-26: Ben Hur (1959)
July 27-August 9: Forrest Gump (1994)
August 10-23: Cinema Paradiso (1988)
August 24-September 6: Mary Poppins (1964)
September 7-20: Casablanca (1942)
September 21-October 4: Rocky (1976)
October 5-18: Enter the Dragon (1973)
October 19-November 1: The Godfather (1972)
November 2-15: The Godfather: Part II (1974)
November 16-29: The Day of the Jackal (1973)
November 30-December 13: The Towering Inferno (1974)
December 14-27: The Great Escape (1963)
December 28-January 10: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
January 11-24: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
January 25-February 7: Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
February 8-21: Gone with the Wind (1939)
February 22-March 7: Chariots of Fire (1981)
March 8-21: Psycho (1960)


Open April 6-March 21 2014

Time Screenings from 10am

Admission Adults ¥1,000, students & children ¥500

Venue Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills Rakutenchi Cinemas Kinshicho, Tachikawa Cinema City, Toho Cinemas Fuchu

Address 6-10-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Roppongi station (Hibiya line), exit 1C; (Oedo line), exit 3.

4th AQFF Asian Queer Film Festival

Until Sun Jun 2, 2013 Cinem@rt Roppongi
Filmmakers from countries including South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong and Cambodia are taking part in this year’s AQFF, a biennial festival that sheds light on the range of LGBT experiences in Asia. Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s ladyboy-themed It Gets Better opens the festival, while One Night and Two Days, a trio of shorts by gay cinema pioneer Lee Song Hee-Il, closes the proceedings the following weekend. Films to look out in between include Kim Jho Kwang-soo’s Two Weddings and a Funeral – a feelgood romcom in which the main characters happen to be gay – and Saratsawadee Wongsomphet’s Yes or No, So I Love You, which holds the distinction of being Thailand’s first film to feature lesbian protagonists (the 2012 sequel is also showing). All films screened with English subtitles.


Open May 24-June 2 No screenings May 27-30

Time Screening times vary (Fri, Sat, Sun only)

Admission Screenings ¥1,500 on the door, ¥1,300 adv; closing program ¥2,700 on the door, ¥2,500 adv

Venue Cinem@rt Roppongi

Address 3-8-15 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Transport Roppongi Station (Hibiya, Oedo lines)

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