Thursday, September 21, 2006

Denny's is just a little bit different in the land of the rising sun.

Here is my Japanese Denny's Grand Slam. Instead of eggs we have rice - instead of bacon we have tempura - and instead of pancakes we have a hot bowl of udon. They hardly changed it at all!

Here is a red dragon I took a picture of at the outdoor "fall festival" nearby where I work. The fall festival celebrates the new harvest and I was told that these dragons are used in special dances. That's right, Japanese people also perform both lion and dragon dances similar to Chinese people. One of CME's new artists was present to sing a few songs on the main stage so a bunch of us came out to watch.

This dragon wants to give you a smooch. Pucker up!

Here is an artistic shot I took looking up at the Roppongi Hills Tower through the skylight below. Dear Michel Gondry - if you read this blog and are in search of a new cinematographer, please contact me! I think we can work something out!

Look Roger! I found your old car in Tokyo!!!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wanna buy some CDs from the White Boy?

Here I am with Loco Roco. This was my post during the sales event today in Ikebukuro (as you can see, we were in the bottom of the train station). Since the Loco Roco theme song (Imagine, "It's A Small World" X 10 in terms of annoyingness) was on continuous loop, I made the giant inflatable Loco Roco dance back and forth to the music for hours on end. This delighted tons of small Japanese children who would run up and touch, hug, or punch Loco Roco.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Japanese Costco (コストコ)

**The Countdown Has BEGUN! 10 Days remaining in JAPAN!!!**

This past weekend I went to Japanese Costco. I know that some readers may label a trip to the world’s premiere wholesale warehouse store as wasteful, but I find no shame in proudly proclaiming that I love Costco. My mother and I go to Costco every week in America, and we have also been to Mexican Costco in Los Cabos.

Costco is very easy to get to from Tokyo, provided you don’t mind riding the train for over an hour. While I was sitting on the train waiting for it to depart from the platform, A Japanese man entered the stalled train car, walked up to me, and asked, ‘Where do you live?’ in Japanese. I responded ‘Asakusa.’ He shook his head and said ‘No…no, I mean what country are you from?’ When I told him America, he mumbled something in Japanese that sounded like either Indiana or Italia. He then bowed and left the train car.

I peered out through the window to see the Japanese man return to the side of a thin, golden haired white woman, who appeared to be over six feet tall. They looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back. Then the train doors shut and I was on my way. I wonder what that was about.

The area Costco is located in is called Tamasakai and it is quite unlike any other place I’ve been to in Tokyo, since it is jam-packed with warehouse style stores of all different varieties.

Costco was largely the same as its American counterpart. I would say 85% of the items sold were identical to the stuff you could buy in America. All the books in the store were sold in their original English print and all the DVDs were of western films as well. There were a few slightly discounted J-pop CDs, but no videogames to speak of.

By far, the most interesting area of the store was the refrigerated / pre-prepared food section, which had sushi and fish of all different varieties. Sample stands were not as frequent as they are in American Costco. This is probably a good thing, because the Japanese people would queue up in line for 10 minutes in order to taste a single bite of warm mini-quiche.

More than anything else, Costco Japan was a low budget amusement park for families. Children seemed to comprise half of the customers in the store, and they poked, shook, and touched every item within their reach.

The most popular selling items included potato chips (both American-made Lays Brand and Japanese varieties), maple flavored cookies, and huge bags of American Candy. Every five seconds you would hear the tortured shriek of a young Japanese child as the giant bag of candy they had been hugging to their chest was placed back in the display box by their parents.

I ate good old fashioned Costco pizza for lunch, with the added bonus of Japan-specific Lemon Fanta soda. As with most things about Japanese Costco, it looked and tasted the same as back home.


I don't want to have my good taste food unless my dog can be right there beside me, lopping up his steak smoothie while I eat.

I didn't even know they had these in Japan! I am not looking forward to the lobster lunch that only costs about eight bux. What kind of meat are they using?

I went in here to see all the puppies and kitties that were in their special puppy and kitty glass terrariums.

Too bad I'm not a golfer. My head boss at Columbia has asked me about ten times if I play golf. I always reply no. He told me he played golf with the CEO of Japan last week. I told him I foxy box with Bill Gates.

Here is the auto superstore "Auto Wave." I can't help but think that you would have enjoyed looking around in here Roger.

A neat rim if I do say so myself.

More sporty rims. Btw, the latest "Fast and the Furious" movie is set in Tokyo.

Here is the Japanese version of Home Depot. I wonder where this company comes from. I have never seen this chain in America.

There she is, Japanese Costco Tokyo in all her majesty. Costco currently operates five stores in Japan, and has plans to build more in the future.

Here is the food court at Japanese Costco. If you want to get an idea of the prices, just use the conversion 100 Yen to the dollar. Clam chowder (far left) was a new menu item in Japan. This area was so crowded with families that I almost didn't have a space to sit down and eat.

Shot #2 of the food court. You will notice the mango smoothie as a new menu option not found in the states.

Small fish called "shishamo." These fish are filled with baby fish eggs and don't have any hard bones to speak of. Japanese people throw these on the grill and you munch on them when you're drinking beer. You just pop them in your mouth like they're fries.

Squid (ika)...nuff said.

A mixture of "small female fish" (I am just reading the Japanese kanji, I don't actually know what type of fish it is) and walnuts. This looked really good! I wanted this for dinner over white rice.

Packs of Unagi (eel) ready for the feasting!

Fresh ikura or salmon eggs (just like the kind you find in sushi). Isn't it neat how they come in these long logs? I really wanted to buy one, but I knew it wouldn't keep.

Here is the small sized sashimi pack at Costco for around $10 U.S.

Here is the main Costco sushi platter. It certainly looks a lot better than the congealed California Roll packs they sell in the American stores.

Packs of fresh futomaki roll.

Here is chirashi-zushi. Note the price - 830 Yen!

What would a snack aisle at Japanese Costco be without Japan's No. 1 most famous snack food? No snack aisle you'd ever find me in, that's what!

Another crunchy, yummy looking snack from the makers of Pocky.

A cute variety of Japanese ramen noodle flavored chips that people were buying up like mad.

Ebi Shrimp Chips in big bags. YUM!

Here are cans of sweet azuki red beans. These are a staple ingredient in most traditional Japanese sweets.

Oden is a traditional winter time stew that Japanese families make using tofu, fish cake, and soft meat. Think of it as Japanese comfort food. Here is Oden in its frozen Costco variety - just plop in boiling water and off you go.

If only they sold this back home!

As you would expect, lots and LOTS of rice!

The undisputed king of mayo - Kewpie Brand Mayonaise. If you have not yet tasted the wonderous splendor of this mayo, you owe it to yourself to jet to your nearest Asian food market and pick some up. What are you waiting for?!

Maruchan's kitsune (fried tofu) udon bowls and tanuki (tempura bits) soba bowls sell far better in Japan than the company's Cup Noodle brand.

Some things never change. This one is for you mom!

The only neat toy-like thing I found at Japanese Costco. I guess it is fitting that it is a 70 piece fake sushi set.

If any Japanese people wanted to practice their English reading comprehension, then they've certainly come to the right place.

See Lia, now I don't have to visit you in Juneau to buy this stuff.

Just like back home.

Now I finally have a place to buy all that trendy camo gear in bulk!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Earthquake (地震)

We had an earthquake around noon today in Tokyo. The Shindo Scale is used to measure the frequency of shaking felt by people at ground level in any given area. This method is used in Japan to measure quakes. The scale goes from one to seven, but today’s quake couldn’t have been more than a one.

Needless to say, I don’t like earthquakes, especially when I am on the tenth floor of the old Columbia building. I was sitting with my coworker Kobayashi-san in a small conference room receiving information about contracts and licensing agreements (I am now in my last division; the Intellectual Property Rights division), when the room started swaying back and forth.

No one on my floor reacted at all; they all chose to keep working diligently as though nothing was happening. “Oh an earthquake,” Kobayashi-san said plainly, “I guess I am used to them now.” I was busy clutching the table with a frightened look on my face. The shaking lasted a good 20 or 30 seconds.

There was actually a very short burst earthquake last Friday that I experienced as well while working an enka event with my Digital Sales coworkers at the Eggman Live House in Shibuya. I was busy affixing labels to informational flyers about Columbia’s mobile phone download site when the entire room lurched forward in a single burst of movement. At least then, my accompanying coworker agreed with me that earthquakes were scary. We had a meaningful 20 second dialogue that involved us repeating the word “scary!” to each other with genuinely forlorn eyes and nods.

The event I attended was a live performance announcing the release of a new single by enka artist Makino Megumi. The inside of the live house was decorated to look like a matsuri (festival), and included a yakisoba stand and sno-cones. I had to wear yukata during the event as well, so as to not clash with the feel of the atmosphere.

People told me that Makino Megumi was over thirty, even though she dressed in ridiculously short shorts and talked with a high-pitched, bubbly school girl voice. Though she wore a kimono during her performance, her music sounded like modern pop as opposed to traditional enka.

She performed a good twelve songs during her show, the highlight of which was the bilingual number “Pineapple Princess.” Makino Megumi pranced about the stage giggling cheerfully as she sang “I’m a pineapple princess – your sweet pineapple princess – Yeah I’m a pineapple princess – so why don’t you eat me?” in heavily accented English to a bouncy tropical beat.

The shock of the evening was a surprise visit by the love of my life – Nomura Mina or Columbia Rose. I hadn’t seen her since we first met, since she repeatedly plays hard to get with regard to my sushi dinner invitations. I was so taken aback to see her suddenly standing in front of me with her hand warmly on my shoulder that I nearly fainted. Unfortunately, since she came right as the show started, the two of us didn’t have any face-to-face time. After the show was over, she had to make her rounds and do the usual singer bit, bowing deeply to everyone, and asking them to buy her album in a super high voice, with big round anime eyes.

Also, her manager (handler) was there with her. I have met the guy several times before so he immediately recognized me (he probably also knows that I’m gunning for his star). He ensured that I couldn’t get too close to Rose to talk with her for any long period of time.

Rose’s handler told me that she would be starting an internet blog, choosing to speak for the singer as though she were a ventriloquist’s dummy. “I’d give you the web address, but you’ll be back in AMERICA at that time won’t you? Can you even see Japanese web pages in America?” he asked me patronizingly in Japanese.

I responded “yep,” with a stare that said if I rammed chopsticks down your windpipe, you’d be out of the picture buddy, and Rose and I could live happily ever after.

Oh well, I guess Romeo & Juliet had it difficult too.


Next up: Japanese Costco!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Living the Dream: Part II - “You GOT IT!!!”

When we last left the adventures of Psychic Lover, Yoffy, Joe, Columbia’s Kubota-san, and myself, were all singing a nighttime rendition of “This is a pen” in a Tokyo drinking spot.

I would soon meet Psychic Lover again when I went with Kubota-san to a Tokyo-AM radio station. There, Psychic Lover was hosting a short 15-minute live program where they introduced their personal “music folder.” I learned that a “music folder is the Japanese name for a play list on iTunes.

The radio premise basically meant that Yoffy and Joe bantered semi-comedic dialogue about pants back and forth while introducing snippets of their favorite songs on the air. Apparently it was national pants day in Japan, or so the producer told us. I wonder if it was a coincidence that three of the four songs selected to play off of Psychic Lover’s iPod were songs they wrote, including their latest Power Rangers theme. Nah, couldn’t be.

Oh, I almost forgot, I was featured on the radio during their show. The first song Psychic Lover wanted to introduce was “Rock and Roll All Night” by KISS. Joe was afraid that he couldn’t pronounce the name correctly, so I was the pinch hitter, saying “Here’s Rock and Roll All Night by KISS” in English on the air. After the song selection played, Yoffy and Joe were nice enough to banter about their American friend Ben for 10 seconds on the air.

By way of a short introduction, here we go! Tonight’s story takes place at the Pasela Karaoke Hall in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Karaoke is a combination of the words “karapo” (meaning empty, NOT crap) and the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “orchestra.” There you have it; karaoke (pronounced correctly as kah-rah-oh-kay) or “empty orchestra.” The same logic can be applied to the word karate, which translates into “empty hand.”

The Ginza Pasela is a karaoke hall for grownups. Completely different from that dusty black singing box you find in bars across America, real Japanese karaoke (in whatever form you choose to partake in) is an event within itself. Any self-respecting Japanese karaoke hall will offer patrons an individual soundproof room where they can sing to their heart’s content, without fear of public embarrassment. One pays for their karaoke room by the hour and, during this time, can order all the alcoholic drinks and snacks one wants for free, to be delivered directly to the room.

When it comes to pretending you’re on American Idol, rest assured that you will be able to sing just about any song you can think of. Phonebook sized listings of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, European, and American songs of every genre and by every artist imaginable, ensure that no one can rightfully use the excuse, “I couldn’t find a song I liked.” Come forewarned; in Japanese karaoke, everyone will be forced to take a turn at the mic (for better or worse depending on one’s tonal ability).

Cheap karaoke halls can be found around any Japanese college or in any place that dares to call itself a downtown. The Ginza Pasela prides itself on being the crème de la crème of karaoke. This basically means that the elaborate cocktails and delicate sashimi are a cut above what you’ll find anywhere else, and that the atmosphere inside the place, complete with see-through glass floors and waterfalls, are enough to make the Bellagio blush.

The basement event hall at the Ginza Pasela was the site for Psychic Lover’s live concert event. I was there as part of the Columbia anime section crew. Psychic Lover’s manager Mizuhara-san was also present with some of his colleagues from Ram’s Productions. Finally, merchandisers from Animate, a manga and anime chain store in Japan, were on hand to supply the fans with all the Psychic Lover CDs, posters, and tiny robot figurines they could want.

I said a quick hello to Joe, who was busy adjusting his levels on the stage; turning the volume up on his axe from deafening to ear bleeding. I then helped put up Psychic Lover posters and arrange the many CD singles into orderly stacks on the folding table, while female clerks from Animate watched me and giggled.

Kubota-san told me that there were going to be near 250 people at the event, but that was a gross exaggeration. To say there was a crowd of 100 would be generous. By and large, late-twenty something Japanese males with glasses and T-shirts, crowded in front of the stage as show time approached. Some guys had Psychic Lover shirts on (I was wearing the limited edition Psychic Lover shirt that my coworkers had given me), but most wore shirts that featured their favorite anime characters. Black was definitely the color of the night, and grease stained sweatpants were preferable to jeans. I also saw quite a few fanny packs.

I did spot one older Caucasian woman (she looked to be in her forties). Together, we were the only two white people in the place. From what I overheard, she could speak some amount of Japanese. I remember that she asked one of the event’s staff members if Psychic Lover was going to make another appearance after they left the stage. She glanced at me once in silence, as if to acknowledge that our skin pantone was the same color, but that was it.

Since the concert was meant to mimic the rowdy, testosterone-filled atmosphere of an outdoor rock festival, they switched off all the electronic dart machines, and forced everyone to stand up close to the stage. Psychic lover soon took their position, now in full rocker regalia and began the show. They played their five or six hit themes, all of which can be found on their current full-length studio album.

Both Yoffy and Joe have a real presence on stage and were helped by the energy from the small crowd that genuinely loved their music. Since Joe has a limited field of movement due to his guitar, Yoffy takes it upon himself to jump and spin around the stage, and lead the audience in clap-alongs during longer solos. Just like on the radio, the two banter semi-comedic dialogue back and forth about the places in Japan they visit on tours in-between songs.

While watching a concert featuring music of the anime or videogame variety, normal audience participation rules do not apply. There is certainly no moshing or screaming. Rather, fans must engage in the following three pre-approved physical actions in order to bring themselves closer to their beloved music and artists.

1) The Jump. This is the most common of the participatory actions, and a great way to keep in rhythm with your favorite song. It involves doing a short bunny hop on every first downbeat and pulsing your legs to the remaining three beats. One then saves up all their energy for the transitions into and out of the bridge, and the last note of the song, which require a large leap in the air. One must keep perfect time and jump in unison with fellow fans, so as not to appear in midair while everyone else is firmly planted on the ground. To be caught in this situation would be noticeably embarrassing and mark one as an amateur.

2) The Punch. The punch is reserved for select circumstances where girly Japanese men must show their strength and pretend that they are Power Rangers, at the prompting of lyric lines such as, “power up” or “let’s go.” During this time, everyone must unleash four fisted blasts into the air, alternating left-right-left-right, in conjunction with the song’s melody. One must count the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, aloud while punching the air, and finish the sequence with a jump of medium height on the downbeat of the following measure.

3) The Point. For slower ballads and quieter music moments where pretending you’re a backup star in a Tae Bo video won’t do, the point must be utilized. This action is the most involved, and requires that one begin extending their right arm skywards, with the index finger erect. The arm extension must start out slow but accelerate so that the finger jabs the air at the exact emotional apex of the music. For slower piano solos and melodic phrases that are longer in duration, it is perfectly acceptable to jab the air repeatedly and in succession, as much as one so desires.

Imagine 100 or so thick-rimmed glasses sporting nerds doing these actions completely in unison, and you will have a good approximation of what the atmosphere was like in the Ginza Pasela. My Columbia coworkers did not engage in these said activities for the most part, choosing rather to rock back and forth and mouth the lyrics to themselves. I experimented with “the point,” during a particularly poignant piano solo in the new Power Rangers theme, but when I looked backwards to see Kubota-san chuckling, I grew self-conscious and took to rocking back and forth like an autistic child instead.

As mentioned, the volume was WAY TOO LOUD. Call me an old crank if you must, but there simply wasn’t enough space or human bodies present in the hall to absorb the sound from the screeching guitar solos and amped up accompaniment. Add this to the fact that Japanese pop-rock always mixes the accompaniment louder than the lead vocals, and you had a solid recipe for death by sound. When the final note had died away, we all found ourselves yelling “WHAT?! WHAT?!,” whenever we addressed each other.

After the show, fans rushed to the folding table to lay their hands and dirty fingernails on CD singles, which came with a designer rectangular piece of white card stock. One could then stand in line for 15 minutes with said piece of rectangular card stock and receive a personalized autograph from Psychic Lover. As the line of fans grew shorter and shorter, with the last patrons waddling away from the stage, blowing on their new signatures so as to not smudge the Sharpie, the Animate store merchandisers brought out the rare stuff; Limited edition Psychic Lover guitar picks for the low, low, price of $15 each!

I saw one prospective impulse buyer rummage through his wallet, only to let his head sag on his chest when he realized that he didn’t have enough money for the yellow-tinted soft triangular piece of plastic. Life can be cruel sometimes…very cruel.

After the concert and cleanup, the whole lot of us (Columbia people, Animate people, and Psychic Lover people) ascended the crystal clear staircase to our own private karaoke room; it was time for the after-party. In total I would say there were around 25 people present, but since the Ginza Pasela gave us their nicest room, space wasn’t an issue. It goes without saying that I was the only white person present. I was also the youngest one there behind Psychic Lover (and they are both 29 years old).

We did a hearty kanpai to Psychic Lover’s successful live performance. Psychic Lover’s manager Mizuhara-san and their representative at Columbia Kubota-san both said, “Let’s move on to the next Psychic Lover album!” And with that, we all began to casually drink mugs of crisp, cool Asahi Beer. All the Japanese men began chain smoking.

After about 35 minutes of drinking and nibbling on the intricate flower shapes formed out of raw fish, the jumbo plasma TV at the front of the room was switched on and Kubota-san started flipping through a huge phonebook sized list of songs – I knew the end was near. From what followed, I learned that karaoke gets better with 1) the more people you have, and 2) the more alcohol you have in your system.

For the next two hours, our group of 25 sang all 30 years worth of Power Rangers theme songs (60 songs in all, since each series has both a beginning and ending theme). Occasionally, we would switch it up with a Masked Rider theme song or the Dragonball theme. It goes without saying that I knew none of these songs. For everyone else however, these songs represented a trip back to their youth.

Not only did all 24 other adults know these songs, they had all the lyrics memorized, and knew exactly when to punch, jump, or karate chop along with the screen. The sight of 24 grown Japanese people chopping and punching in unison at a television screen as it displayed images of a giant Megazord vanquishing the octopus creature can only be described as surreal. Thankfully for me, since virtually every Japanese Power Ranger theme included some sort of “Power Up” or “Let’s Go Rangers” chorus, it was very easy to sing along. Before I knew it, I was wildly punching the air and belting out, “His name is Masked Rider BLAAAAAAAACK RX!!!!”

About halfway through our time, Kubota-san dropped the song book in my lap and said, “You sing.” I took my time flipping through the book, choosing to observe the others around instead. Yoffy, who was nice and wasted, was busying putting a piece of paper against the screen as people were singing, to try to trip them up on the lyrics. When they couldn’t remember how a certain line went without the teleprompting, he would laugh hysterically, nearly falling off his cushion.

Mizuhara-san could be found in the back of the room, performing the Macarena to a particularly upbeat theme song. When it came time for him to sing his song, “Kokoro wa Tamago (心は卵)” or “My heart is an egg,” the ending theme from the show “Bird People Squadron Jet Rangers” (鳥人戦隊ジェットマン), he got down on one knee, looked me in the eyes, and said “I sing this song for you Ben.” Out of thirty years worth of Power Ranger themes, this song is my favorite (though not due to Mizuhara-san’s dedication). I like it because it reminds me of an 80s love ballad. During the chorus, Mizuhara-san jumped up on the couch and began swaying back and forth with his arms extended in the air. He was so into his Power Rangers kumbaya that he nearly fell backwards into the flat screen television.

Next, Psychic Lover sang four of their songs which were programmed into the karaoke box. It was very interesting to watch artists sing their own songs in karaoke. Yoffy, who wasn’t getting any soberer, took to imitating the image of himself on the screen. He would twist and twirl around rapidly to try to hit the same poses as his virtual self on the television. Meanwhile, Joe would pull his slumping body off of the couch cushion and thrash his torso around while playing the air guitar to his own prerecorded solos.

Then, it was my turn. I had been sweating over what song to sing, because I knew full well that I couldn’t attempt a Japanese anime song. I also knew that if I chose an American song I really wanted to sing, the chances of my Japanese friends knowing it were slim to none. After an hour and a half of jumping, screaming, punching, and vanquishing evil in vocal form, I dreaded the cricket chirping silence that would come if I sang Tiny Dancer.

Because of this, I went with a safe bet, The Beatles. I figured that the Japanese would know Twist & Shout, and sure enough they did. I also figured correctly that the call and response structure was at least lively enough to keep peoples’ heads from falling into their fried rice. It may have just been the alcohol, but I thought I sounded great! Actually, I believe that the karaoke machine was equipped with some sort of autocorrecting device that modulated your voice’s pitch up or down to fit the melody line. This would explain while my voice came out of the TV sounding just like John Lennon.

A good eight songs before me, Mizuhara-san had taken to jumping up on the couch Tom Cruise style, shooting two pointed index fingers your way, and yelling “YOU GOT IT!!!” in English whenever anyone finished a song. Needless to say, I got the pleasure of Mizuhara-san’s “YOU GOT IT!!!” couch dive. Even after my applause died down, he was still saying “YEAH! YEAH! YOU GOT IT!!!” in between gulps of beer. After I was done, Yoffy told me that I could also sing “Yesterday” by The Beatles or “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic, because all Japanese people know these songs. I declined to do my award winning Celine Dion impression – I’ll save that for “Lost in Translation II.”

The song I had been secretly searching for but couldn’t find came up ten minutes later; The American Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Theme! You know, the one from our middle school days with the lyrics, “Go Go Power Rangers, You Mighty Morphin Power Rangers!”

Needless to say, I jumped up to the mic, finally finding a superhero theme I could contribute to. Psychic Lover also took the remaining mics and the three of us did a trio on the American Power Rangers theme. I actually didn’t remember that the song had any lyrics other than “Go Go Power Rangers,” so I was caught off guard when actual verses came on the screen. The lyrics were written in English, but Psychic Lover knew the song better than I did, so it wasn't a problem. I tried my best to harmonize with professional rockers who can sing a good half octave above me, but I stopped reaching for the high notes for fear of upchucking my beer.

The best part about the song was the visuals on the screen. We were treated to panoramas of a cable car traveling around the hills of San Francisco as we belted out lyrics like, “No one can ever keep them down. There power lies INSIDE!!!!” During a guitar solo, Yoffy said, “Hmmm…Shots of overseas. It looks like America” over the mic. I replied “It’s San Francisco” in English and everyone in the room burst out laughing. Go figure.

We sang a few final songs before leaving the room – our three hours were up. We bowed and thanked each other for a fun time on the street corner in front of the Ginza Pasela, and I headed back on the train line, humming the Power Rangers song all the way home.

We’re hoping to launch the Ben Whaley – Psychic Lover joint, “Special Golden Best: A Power Rangers Theme Collection” this holiday season. Check in November for a great stocking stuffer!

To Be Continued…Next; the stunning conclusion of Living the Dream…


Part III - "Could I have a little water?"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

T-Minus 24 Life Hours (河豚)

This evening my friend Izumi and I went to a small restaurant in nearby Akasaka to eat poisonous blowfish. Since this may very well be my last blog post before death sets in, I will take a moment to say that I love you all!

Blowfish or “fugu” has been a taste treat in Japan since the medieval period. The best time to eat the dish is in the winter, when the fugu get fat in order to survive the icy waters. The dish is famous due to the poisonous toxins found in certain parts of the meat. If not prepared correctly, the fish meat can retain enough poison to cause death if ingested. Every year a handful of people die from fugu poisoning. Since 1958, fugu chefs have been required by the Japanese Ministry of Health to be officially licensed to serve the meat (this license should be visible in any eatery you dine at) and must also cut the flesh with a special, ultra-sharp fugu knife.

The most poisonous part of the fish is the liver, which cannot be served in Japan. Also, establishments that specialize in fugu are required to dispose of the fish remains in special waste receptacles, so as to not kill any animals or homeless people by mistake. The preparation and serving of fugu is illegal in the United States, so don’t ask for it at your local sushi bar unless you want people to laugh at you.

Izumi didn’t want to go to a fugu joint; that much was clear. She kept asking me to have Korean food or Thai food instead as we set out from work. We arrived at the no-name establishment and went inside. It quickly became apparent that we were the only two people in the entire place, which immediately led Izumi to say “This is because they kill everyone.” I managed a wry grin.

Two elderly ladies came out and brought us tea and water. Next, the chef came over to our table and gave us our last bow. He looked to be in his late sixties, which didn’t help the feeling of uneasiness. As long as I pushed the image of a shaky, spotted, wrinkled hand cutting up the fish out of my consciousness, I was fine.

Izumi told me she wasn’t going to order fugu because she was afraid, and stayed true to her word, ordering a regular sushi dinner instead. I ordered fugu sashimi and grilled fugu. There was also fugu stew, fugu soup, fugu tempura, and fugu Pocky available as well, but I didn’t have enough cash to sample every type. Fugu is very expensive and the set meal featuring ten different varieties cost well over $150. There was even a tank with live fugu swimming around, so you could see your dinner, or see your murderer for that matter.

First up was the fugu sashimi, served with green onions and dipped in soy sauce. The meat was cut paper thin and was white and semi-translucent. For the most part, the texture was extremely soft, but the edges were just firm enough to create a little bit of resistance while chewing.

A skilled fugu chef will leave a trace amount of the poisonous section on the top of the meat so that one receives a slight tingly sensation on their tongue while eating. This was the case with my fugu sashimi, which produced a slight tingly sensation similar to the lingering punch of chili oil on one’s lips. The fugu’s natural flavor is fresh and clean, with just a hint of oil.

Just FYI, if the tingling sensation turns into a numbing sensation, which leads to a shaking sensation, followed lastly by a cold sensation, then you know that they added too much “flavoring.”

I kept trying to offer Izumi thin slices of death sashimi, because I didn’t think it was fair that I should be the only person to die, but she wouldn’t have any, snapping her lips shut and saying “muri muri muri!” which translates into “no way no way NO WAY!” I tried to explain to her the concept of living dangerously, but she shook her head and said “we don’t have that saying in Japanese.”

Oh well…a white boy dies, a Japanese girl lives…fair trade.

Next up was the equally delicious grilled fugu. The chef brought the dish to my seat. I think he wanted an excuse to ask me where I was from. He also brought his atlas and set it down in front of me, so I pointed out Washington State and the City of Seattle.

He grilled the flat pieces of fugu for me over the small flame and than stood within two feet of my face to watch me eat the entire dish. Izumi was holding back laughter at the zoo-worthy Ben Whaley feeding show. Occasionally, I would turn to my side and tell the chef how good I thought everything tasted (this wasn’t a lie). He would beam, smiling ear to ear, and throw one of the remaining pieces of fish onto the fire.

Having already conquered basashi (raw horse meat) and kujira (whale meat), fugu was the only remaining item that I wanted to eat before leaving Japan. And honestly, if it does turn out to be my last meal, eating fugu wouldn’t be so terrible of a way to go.

If you see is already too late!
The main event: fugu sashimi.
I love poison cause it’s so delicious, gone blow fishin’!
And to kick it up a few more notches, BAM! a little brake fluid. Oh yeah babe!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ultraman Festival (ウルトラマン)

Below are pictures from the 2006 Ultraman Festival I attended in Ikebukuro this Saturday, thanks to a free admission ticket from my anime section friends at Columbia.

For those who don’t know, 2006 marks the 40th anniversary of Japan’s original primetime superhero. Ultraman tells the story of a young man sent from a distant star in a galaxy far, far away to protect earth from evil monsters and giant dinosaurs that threaten the planet’s destruction.

As the series continued on, a whole family of Ultra-characters was created, including a mother, father, and many other female and male Ultra-siblings. The current Ultraman series running on television in Japan (and in a feature film starting next week) is Ultraman Mebius (ウルトラマンメビウス). I dare you to successfully pick him out of the pictures below without reading the captions.

Unlike the subsequent Masked Rider and Power Ranger series that featured superheroes of regular human height and origin, Ultraman in an alien who possesses the ability to grow himself to epic proportions (rivaling Godzilla in stature). In addition to his trademark chops and karate kicks, Ultraman can also shoot beams of light energy out of his hands to dispatch his foes.

As you can see from the pictures below, the Ultraman Festival was mostly a series of displays featuring the various good guy and bad guy costumes featured in the show. There were also weapons on display as well as TVs that would show footage from the various series.

The event was absolutely packed to the brim with kids. In what can best be described as the nursery school from hell, kids ran, shrieked, cried, fell, and walloped their way through the different exhibits. There was a line to take your picture with Ultraman, as well as a small tram that ran in a circle, but since I saw no one over the age of ten partaking in the activity (save for the kids’ parents), I decided against getting in line.

The highlight of the festival was the Ultraman Live Stage Show that plays every hour on the hour. This was a comical rendition of the popular television show that had Japanese people in rubber Ultraman costumes jumping about the stage and walloping on Japanese people in rubber monster costumes. Because the monster costumes were made entirely out of foam rubber, Ultramen would often fall right off the back of the monsters when they tried to dive on the evil creatures for that WWF finish. The kids got a kick out of the action however, which is all that matters.

Because no actor could speak through an Ultraman costume, all the audio was recorded and played through the theater’s sound system. This led to the Ultraman actors on stage using wildly overstated body language and gestures to accompany even the simplest bits of dialogue. William Shatner would have been proud. The only character not in rubber was a Gaia / Mother Earth–like character played by a young Japanese woman.

Her job was to stand downstage left, hold a disco ball, and look anxious throughout the entire show. Whenever Ultraman took a particularly nasty spill from a baddie’s punch, she would prompt to audience to get involved by yelling “saynoh,” which means “come on” or “repeat after me.” This was the audience members’ cue to scream “Gambare Ultraman” or “Don’t give up!” in reply. This call and response bit happened a good 23 times throughout the thirty minute show.

At one point during the show, Ultraman collapsed on the stage, seemingly defeated at the hands of a samurai sword wielding skeleton cyborg. After a quick “saynoh” from our billowy blue dress clad MC, it was everyone’s chance to clap if they believed in ferries…uh, I mean Ultraman. By this point, I had ceased participating. Call me coldhearted if you must, but Ultraman rose from the grave and defeated the evil skeleton king even without my screams and applause.

Somehow, deep in my heart I knew he would!


A giant Ultraman Mebius marks the entrance to the 2006 Ultraman Festival at Ikebukuro's Sunshine City Convention Center. "Pay no attention to the girl behind the statue!"