Monday, August 31, 2009

Sky Aquarium (スカイアクアリウム)

Make that Sky Aquarium III: Revenge of the Sky Aquarium!

While I never had the chance to attend episodes I and II, I'm very happy that I was able to close out the aquatic trilogy.

Sky Aquarium is a yearly exhibition held in the uber-luxurious Roppongi Hills Tower in Tokyo. Japan's premier aquarium designers get together and create artistic tank designs using a wide variety of tropical fish.

The "sky" refers to the fact that the display is held on the 52nd floor of the tower, thus enabling visitors to gaze at the illuminated Tokyo skyline while wiggling their index fingers at fish.

Some of the tanks were very cool! Please check out the photos and videos below.


Roppongi Hills Tower. We're headed to the 52nd floor!

Tokyo cityscape (with Tokyo Tower in the center).

The long highway whizzing-by below. This would be a neat aerial shot for a movie.

Welcome to Sky Aquarium III at Roppongi Hills in Tokyo.

Long fish with the funny nose.

This is my favorite still shot from the event. The fish look like they are simply floating in the air. These pictures were not digitally manipulated in any way.

More colorful tropical fish.

All of the tanks had wildly different color schemes and contents.

Fish & Flowers.

For lack of a more enticing description, there were many "neat" tanks at the Sky Aquarium. This one looks like it belongs in a Vegas magic act.

In addition to tons of "NEMOs" (clownfish), this "neat tank" had triangular kaleidoscopes through which you could view the passing fish.

Cheese wedge tank.

This was my favorite tank from the Sky Aquarium. I call this video "TRON Jellyfish" because of the neat laser lights.

And here's the tank of cute baby jellyfish.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Election Results (総選挙)

She voted...did you?

Well, the election results are pouring in on TV and, though there was little doubt, it is now clear that the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党) has won a landslide victory.

The DPJ has already crossed the 240 seat threshold needed to wrest control of the country from the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party (自民党). This means it's out with manga-loving Prime Minister Taro Aso and in with Yukio Hatoyama - the man with a tiny neck and giant head.

Like Americans last year, Japanese voters seem to have overwhelmingly embraced the need to "seiken kotai" (政権交代) or "change administrations". Unfortunately for campaign purposes, the phrase "seiken kotai" isn't nearly as catchy as "YES WE CAN!!!"

It will be interesting to watch where Japan goes from here...


Friday, August 28, 2009

"Art is Explosion!" (岡本太郎美術館)

"Art is Explosion!"

That was the catch phrase coined (and comically shouted) by Japan's most famous and influential abstract artist / sculptor / and all-around artistic personality Taro Okamoto (1911~1996).

Having been inspired by his gigantic mural "Tomorrow's Mythology" in Shibuya Station, I decided to take a visit to the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki City. The museum is a bit out of the way from central Tokyo, but well worth a day trip if you are interested in viewing some quirky and unique pieces from one of Japan's leading creative minds.

Taro Okamoto dropped out of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts after half a year, only to move to Paris with the aim of becoming a painter. After encountering Pablo Picasso's famous work "Pitcher and a Bowl of Fruit", Okamoto began to walk the path of abstract art.

In his later years, he often spoke at length in interviews about his independent artistic theory of “polarism”, in which all his trademark elements, such as wavy lines, bright colors, and playful figures, came together in direct opposition with each other.

Okamoto's most famous work is his "Tower of the Sun" in Osaka, an artistic image that continues to be extremely relevant in modern Japanese pop-culture (*For one example, please refer to the excellent manga series 20th Century Boys).

Many of Okamoto's larger sculpture works are on public display at locations throughout Tokyo or in other Japanese cities. Though he is no longer with us, his presence lingers on in these wonderful pieces.


Welcome to the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki City. Here is the artist with one of his famous "Hand Chairs". Yes, he is the artist who created those famous hand chairs. Accept no imitations!

This curvy, love seat like chair (and yes, it is a chair) is entitled "Terrible Child".

This is the art piece that Taro Okamoto will forever be remembered for - the 70-meter tall "Tower of the Sun" (太陽の塔). The tower was originally created as the central symbol for Expo 70, the world's fair held in Osaka in 1970. The top picture is the cardboard cutout from the museum. The bottom picture is one I snapped of the actual tower in Osaka.

The tower still stands today, thanks to the many Osaka residents who banded together to protest its proposed demolition. During the Expo, the inside of the tower contained a giant walk-in art piece as well. Current plans are to reopen the tower in 2010 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Expo 70.

"Banpaku BANZAI!!! Banpaku BANZAI!!!"

This large sculpture is simply entitled "Woman" (女). I posted pictures earlier of the large mural at Shibuya Station. Actually, many of Okamoto's works are scattered throughout the city.

Okamoto designed chairs and kitchen sets...he decorated cars and clothes. He even designed Olympic medals! This is the participation medal that was awarded to all the athletes during the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And here is the commemorative medal he designed for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo. Unlike the previous medal, the general public was able to purchase this one as a keepsake.

I genuinely thought pictures were allowed in this final gallery, so I snapped this shot. A museum worker quickly rushed over to scold me in Japanese. Oops!

In any event, this piece is representative of the general feel of Taro Okamoto's larger oil paintings. His abstract use of bright colors, wavy lines, and even cartoon-like characters are all meant to evoke the central artistic concept of "polarism".

The area outside the museum had a few great photo opportunities. This piece is called "Spirit of a Tree I". There's also "Spirit of a Tree II", which looks completely different. Guess tree spirits don't all look the same.

Standing in an open plaza behind the museum is Okamoto's 30-meter tall "Tower of the Mother" (母の塔). This, and the separate "Tower of Youth" were originally designed as companion pieces and were displayed to the east and west of the "Tower of the Sun" at Expo 70.

My more "artistic" shot of the tower. I'll leave the interpretation of the piece up to you.

Finally, here's a Taro-esque cow I spotted in front of a local Chinese restaurant.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

2000 Yen Note (二千円札)

Banknotes of the Japanese Yen come in three denominations - 1000 yen (~10 USD) , 5000 yen (~50 USD) and 10,000 yen (~100 USD). Smaller amounts are all handled with coins.

Back in the year 2000 however, a 2000 yen note was issued to commemorate the G8 Summit in Okinawa. You can see pictures of the bill below. It's very pretty.

I've never seen anyone pay with these bills in public. My guess is that they are mostly a novelty item, similar to the $2 bill in the United States.

Some Japanese claim that the 2000 yen bills were a failed attempt to boost the economy, since special vending machines had to be made to accommodate the new notes.

I was at the bank today and decided to fool around with the currency converter. This handy machine will break your money into any combination of bills and coins that you please. A few button presses later and...BINGO!...a clean, crisp 2000 yen note to have and to hold.

I'll probably spend it. $2 is fine, but $20 is a bit too much value for a keepsake.


The front of the note features the famous Shureimon gate in Naha, Okinawa, near where the G8 Summit took place.

The back of the note features a scene from The Tale of Genji, as well as a portrait of its author Murasaki Shikibu (lower right corner).

Shureimon, a famous gate in Naha, Okinawa.

The same image appears in the watermark.

Closeup of the scene from The Tale of Genji. This image was taken from a 12th Century illustrated hand scroll of the story.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Happiest Bath on Earth (大江戸温泉物語)

Well, it's officially been one week since I left Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku, and topping the list of things that I miss most are my weekly onsen (hot spring) visits.

I now consider myself an onsen snob. I believe I've earned this title. While I am nowhere near as well-traveled and knowledgeable as seasoned Japanese bathers, I have soaked in my fair share of tubs across Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

I visited over ten different onsen in Ehime Prefecture alone, swapping between two local establishments in To-on City for my weekly Monday night bath. I've bathed in the oldest of the oldest and the best of the best.

As a general rule, there are essentially no onsen to be found in the large city centers of Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo. Though, taking a several hour train ride out of the city may produce a couple of bathing holes. Knowing this to be the case, I simply assumed that my soaking days were over.

Enter Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba - Tokyo's premiere bathing amusement park! The name in Japanese is sort of goofy; it translates to something like, "Tale of a Tokyo Hot Spring". Judging by the name alone, I knew this was going to be a bathing experience like no other.

Running off of the amusement park model, the set admission price is a comprehension defying $30. This price lowers to $20 if you choose to bathe after 6 PM. To my surprise, they were running some sort of summer campaign, so I only had to pay $12.

While still undoubtedly on the steep end price wise (for comparison, my local onsen was $3.60), ten to fifteen dollars is not out of the question for a high-end establishment. I would never personally spend $30 for a bath, considering that Funaya, the luxury onsen / ryokan in Matsuyama where the imperial family stayed, only costs $15.

Visitors to Oedo Onsen Monogatari are required to wear a yukata. You can see the "festive" design I chose below. One point of confusion is that guests initially go into a changing room. Now, in 100% of the onsen I've visited up until now, this is the place where you would get naked, shove your clothes and personal belongings into a locker, and go through the curtain into the main bath.

At Oedo Onsen Mongatari however, what lies on the other side of the curtain is not the bathtub, but rather the sickeningly hyper-stylized Disney-esque Japan Plaza - filled with prize booths, theme restaurants, employees in costume, and just about every stereotypically Japanese image you can cram into the decor.

Thus, I very nearly made the mistake of announcing my arrival with a naked stroll through the promenade. I was not alone in my over-experienced blunder. I saw one Japanese man and son actually make their naked way well past the curtain, only to rush back into the changing room in shock. We were the true bathers.

Upon careful inspection of the sign, guests are asked to don their freakish yukata and first stroll around the premises before making their way to a separate changing room and entering the main bath.

Finding the entrance to the actual bath was equally confusing. Since everything in the plaza was so overdecorated with fake temple facades and torii gates, it was a bit like wandering around Epcot stoned. A friendly ninja finally pointed me in the right direction.

The actual bath itself is genuine in layout and design, if not in water quality. A particular onsen's water quality is immediately evident due to the feeling it produces on your skin (not to mention the taste - and yes, you should sample the taste). In addition to feeling clean, the best onsen water will leave your skin feeling soft and smooth after a bath.

Unfortunately, the water at Oedo Onsen Monogatari was supersaturated with sodium. It seemed like they were just pumping salt water into the various tubs. Consequently, my skin felt flaky and dry after exiting the bath.

Being the lover of traditional Japanese bathing that I am, I cannot recommend Oedo as an onsen. The argument could be made that the establishment is a tourist destination first and a public bath second.

While the sight of gleeful foreigners frolicking about in their yukata, licking cones of green tea ice cream was enough to make me silently throw up in my mouth, I'm willing to concede that if a family only has one week to spend in Tokyo and are searching for something "traditionally Japanese" to do...

I'll stop just short of an endorsement. Just so long as that same family keeps in mind that not all public baths look like they were ripped straight from the set of Memoirs of a Geisha.


Welcome to Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba, Tokyo. Raise your hand if you've been to an onsen theme park before...yeah, me neither. The design of the building looks heavily inspired by Ise Jingu, Japan's most famous Shinto Shrine.

The first step is to put your street clothes into a TSUNAMI LOCKER!!!

The next step is to change into your yukata.

Yukata designs at Oedo Onsen Monogatari range from 100% garish Japanese to 500% garish Japanese. I made sure to choose the 500% variety!

Step through the curtain...and...



*Please note that Onsen Dollars have no legal cash value and cannot be exchanged for Japanese currency once purchased.

It's as if Walt Disney designed an onsen. The unsuspecting bather is immediately catapulted into a fantasy land, home to...

...and robotic dogs...

...and E. Honda!

Here is the entrance to the main bath.

I'm not quite sure why they put up the shimenawa (straw rope). Usually these are present at holy Shinto sites. Perhaps because it looks "Japanese"? In fact, this whole gate looks more like a temple entrance than a bath entrance. Tourists probably can't tell the difference.

The famous Shibuya Crossing (at Hachiko exit), as seen from the second floor of the train station.

This mural by famed Japanese artist Taro Okamoto (1911~1996) was unveiled last November at its new permanent home in the main concourse at Shibuya Station. Okamaoto's most famous work is his "Tower of the Sun" sculpture in Osaka.

This mural, entitled, "Tomorrow's Mythology", depicts the exact moment of the atomic bombing. It was originally commissioned in 1967 by a Mexican luxury hotel. After the hotel's development went under, the piece became lost in storage for years.

Guess where the mural was restored before it made its way to Tokyo? To-on City in Ehime Prefecture - the very place I USED TO LIVE!!!

Feeling gloomy? This guy will deliver a rainbow right to your front door.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Akihabara Update (アキバアップデート)

Since Akihabara is probably my favorite place in all of Japan, I always make a trip to the game / toy / perversion mecca to window shop and see what's new. Since it's the tail end of the summer tourist season, everywhere in Tokyo is absolutely jam-packed with people. Perhaps I'm a bit hyper sensitive to this, having just come from the countryside.

There's not much new in ol' Akiba. Sony recently announced redesigned PS3 and PSP systems, but since those won't launch in Japan until September and November respectively, much is quiet on the hardware front. Perhaps next month's Tokyo Game Show will bring some exciting surprise announcements from publishers

On the software side, Square-Enix's Dragon Quest IX continues to be the top-selling game across the country, having sold well over three million units since its release last month. Other hot games include Monster Hunter Tri and Wii Sports Resort, both for Wii.

Japan's national election is in exactly one week. There's a very real possibility that the Democratic Party of Japan will beat out the LDP for the first time in a decade.

I half expected to see Prime Minister Aso dressed in cosplay on an Akiba street corner, preaching about the global significance of Japanese popular culture.


Commissioned this life-size figure of myself. This was after the bad guys shot me three times in the chest. I just kept coming!

Protected by bulletproof glass, this in-store master model maker shows you all the tips and tricks to create the perfect mobile suit.

This maid was handing out advertisement slips for a soon-to-be-released Xbox 360 game called Dream Club. I think she's supposed to be the middle one on the bottom row (See picture below).

*Notice that the outstretched hand in the picture has a visible wedding ring.

A poster for the game. Could very well be a maid cafe simulator, I wouldn't put it past them.

Everything in big Japanese cities is stacked vertically, requiring passersby to look up and down to locate stores, instead of left to right. Unlike in America, where the arcade scene is practically nonexistent, game centers are still wildly popular in Japan.

Taito HEY is arguably the most popular game center in Akihabara. This is the place to go to check out all of the latest arcade boxes from the major publishers.

This is the interior of Taito HEY! One immediate difference is that around 3/4 of all the games are actually older - retro machines. Despite being old, the games still draw huge lines of players. For instance, here is a row of machines featuring every different entry from the Street Fighter series.

Also incredibly popular are Gachapon or "capsule toys". Here is a store specializing in the little treasures.