Notes and photos from Tokyo, 2018

It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.

It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.

Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.

This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.

Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.

As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.

We were also fortunate to visit 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT when an exhibition about Naoto Fukusawa’s iconic INFOBAR phone was on in commemoration of its 15th anniversary and the new xv model. The anniversary model runs some severely restricted version of Android to recreate the minimal featurephone experience. It’s a beautiful object that I used to dream about being able to use, back in the pre-smartphone days. We just don’t get this kind of product design anymore now that the screen has become the primary element.

Some observations…

Every time I’m in Japan, I try to notice what games people are playing, the devices they’re using, what’s being advertised and so on, because it’s still quite an insulated cultural environment and many of those things don’t make their way outside or fail to catch on if they do.

Gaming

Last November, a Korean-made mobile game called Destiny Child was being heavily advertised on TV and around the city on billboards. The ads were highly visual, showing off some detailed 2D character animations and no gameplay to speak of, so I had no idea what it was about but I wanted to try it. For a whole year afterwards, I’d periodically do a search for Destiny Child on the App Store to see if it had made it out in English. This year, upon our return after the 10 days or so in Japan, it was finally released globally in English. It’s a kinda ecchi mobile gacha game and not for everyone, but you can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/destiny-child/id1416959016?mt=8

Okay, these aren’t the latest games.

I’m still waiting for Level-9’s The Snack World (3DS) to cross the language divide.

You already know this, but the Switch is killing it. The fact that it’s region-free, and a few games that come out first in Japan include support for English and other European languages, has been seized upon by some retailers who have stuck up notices for tourists about what games they can safely buy home. Sony had some pretty slick in-store displays for Judge Eyes and PSVR, but Nintendo had the crowd-drawing content between Pokémon Let’s Go, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Mario Party.

Tobacco

Compared to a year ago, smokeless tobacco products seemed to be in decline. I recall seeing people use Marlboro’s IQOS devices everywhere, and in smoking lounges (at the airport, for example), the majority of people were using similar systems.

Now, it seemed like the proportions were reversed. I overheard (mostly inferred from snatches of words I understood, actually) a lady talking to her friend about JT’s Ploom Tech while smoking a regular cigarette, saying how it wasn’t that good. She even pulled the device out of a pouch in her bag to show it off.

Having tried Ploom Tech, I can see why. It’s nothing like a cigarette and really lacks a lot of the experience. IQOS is much closer. I’d be interested to know the reasons behind this pattern, if true. Was it just a fad, or do smokeless products have a future? I think their adoption could do a ton to improve the air in cities, and improve quality of life for smokers as well.

Electronics

A couple of years ago, everyone on the train listened to music with cords hanging from their faces and that was the picture almost everywhere. Riding the Tokyo metro in 2017, I noticed many more making the move to wireless (the same story in Singapore), but the majority of these were neckbuds and the like — sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones connected by a cable.

This year, commuters were noticeably switching to so-called true wireless headphones, including Apple’s AirPods which have exploded in popularity. It’s an overall trend in consumer electronics, helped by the fact that prices have come down and identical OEM buds under a slew of new brand names can be had for very little. Just look in my Instagram ads sometime.

But after looking at tons of them in the big stores like Bic and Yodobashi Camera, I’ve concluded that almost none of them are competitive with the AirPods on battery life or charging case size. The Jabra Elite 65T has probably the smallest case (I bought a pair), and Sony‘s are laughably large. They are like mini coffins, and won’t fit in any pockets. Instant fail. Even after a year, no one has nailed battery life, solid connectivity, and portability like Apple did with AirPods. If only they fit my ears without falling out.

I don’t know if the reports of iPhone XR demand being weaker than expected are true, but you’d never know it from walking the aisles in a store. It had just come out when we were there, but the shelves were already filled with third-party accessories. And stores were pitching them at the front, with iPhone XS and XS Max goods relegated to the rear. Clearly, manufacturers and retailers were ready for it to be the most popular model.

Magazines and retail

I posted about this in an Instagram story, but it bears repeating here. The Japanese publishing industry and its continued survival is an interesting phenomenon I wish someone at Netflix would commission a documentary on. Digital devices are everywhere, and I believe Amazon had some success convincing people to read manga on their Kindles, but paper is still everywhere.

Walk into any magazine section and you’ll see specialist interest publications on niche hobbies: fountain pens, shooting film through vintage lenses, ballet, fabric decoration, birdwatching, and even individual apps and games. None of this is news, but every year I see that companies can keep doing this makes me feel incredibly bittersweet about not being able to read Japanese and live in their world. I’d love to know how close to the line of viability they stray, and whether or not young people are still considering a career in the industry.

Just this month, Bunkitsu, a mammoth new bookstore has opened with over 30,000 titles and a so-crazy-it-might-work business model: visitors have to pay a ¥1500 cover charge. 

I’ve wistfully said similar things about their retail landscape in other posts, and how you’re sure to find supplies for (insert odd past time) somewhere. But while you can shop, learn, and find community online from anywhere in the world, it’s different when physical spaces are reserved for this exploration and sharing.

That’s why places like Tsutaya at Daikanyama T-Site (see last post) are so special; they’re like magazines you can walk around in. Feeling out of touch with culture? A quick trip immerses you in what Thom Yorke is up to (writing the score for a remake of Suspira, btw here’s the LP cover and a t-shirt and the movie poster and one of the costumes from the production… wanna hear it on this new pair of headphones?); what the new Pixel 3 feels like to hold; what drinks Starbucks is peddling for Christmas this year; which classic albums are 50 years old today; and a ton of other media about whatever you care about. Yeah it’s all driven by consumerism, but let me have it.

I have no doubt that we will collectively realize what we’ve lost if/when physical retail collapses, and attempt to restore it. Possibly through VR or mixed reality. Some form of socially curating, presenting, and trading is crucial to the creative process, and I think it has to have a tactility and presence to work. Or maybe I’m just old now.

More photos

I packed light with just an iPhone XS Max and the Panasonic LX10 I bought earlier in the year, and decided to try something new: processing every color photo with the same filter/film simulation in VSCO. It’s the KA1, aka their recreation of Kodak Ektachrome E100G. Because their Film X filters allow you to adjust “character” and warmth along a spectrum, you can actually make any single film sim work on a variety of photos; contrasty and warm in some, faded and cool in others. The goal was to set a consistent look across the two cameras and one moment in time. I’ll probably look back on these in the future and want to edit them all over again, but this is good for now.

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