Sunday, December 8, 2019

Anime with a Japanese Card or Board Game Twist

Japan is one of the few countries has traditional card and board games as part of pop culture and even as a national sport.  I'm not counting chess here which is international.  Not only are these games actively played, they are popular anime and manga with big followings.  Some of these are even rank in the best anime out there, so they have deep stories, good characters, and great artwork.

For a tourist visiting Japan, they might see these games and think they are interesting, but for some anime fans, they make great souvenirs too!  A fan would want a copy of these games as a great souvenir to remember the show or even to play it with their friends to get into it.  Below are four anime that feature a traditional game in some manner.

Smaller Hanafuda cards with the larger cards being Karuta cards.

Karuta and Chihayafura
Playing cards were introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century.  The name Karuta is derived from the Portuguese word "carta" for cards.  There are many versions of Karuta, but the version that is played in the anime Chihayafura is competitive karuta based upon Uta-Garuta or poetry karuta.  In this card game, there are 100 reading cards (yomifuda), each with a picture and a waka poem on it, and there are 100 white cards (torifuda) which have the last few lines of a corresponding yomifuda card on it. The poems are from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a set of classical Japanese poems considered core to Japanese literature.

The torifuda are shuffled and split between two players who lay them out in front of themselves.  A third person has the shuffled yomifuda and begins to read them out.  The object is to swipe the matching torifuda card away to score a point.  The faster you recognize the card being read allows you to swipe the matching card and you can sometimes recognize the card in one or two syllables.  So the game incorporates memorization of where the cards are, sound recognition of the poem, skill and speed in swiping.

Chihayafura is about a girl, Chihaya Ayase, who meets a boy, Arata Wataya, who is a talented karuta player.  A third boy, Taichi Mashima, forms a completed love triangle with the three people tied together by a love of competitive karuta.  The three friends are separated, but reunited in high school where they hone their karuta skills and play in regional and national tournaments.  I really enjoyed the characters navigating their relationships (sometimes obliviously), but the game drives the character development and how they face relationships, competition against oddball characters, and even overcome loss and injury.  I love how lyrical it is to read out the karuta cards in this show.  After March Comes in Like a Lion, this is my next favourite game related anime.

For souvenirs, you can buy relatively cheap sets of karuta cards with a cd to read the poems, but they are in Japanese usually.  There are even anime themed children's karuta decks with Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro themes.

Hanafuda and Summer Wars
Hanafuda or flower cards are another game derived from western playing cards introduced to Japan in the 16th century. When the Tokugawa Shogunate broke ties with the West, foreign cards were banned, but card games were now popular and Japanese themed decks were developed.  Hanafuda was developed in the early 19th century and Nintendo (of Super Mario fame) manufactured the cards by the end of the same century. Nintendo still makes the cards and the small cards in the photo above show Hanafuda cards.

There are 48 cards in a Hanafuda deck.  There are 12 suites of four cards each that represent the 12 months of the year.  There are a number of ways to play the game, but they all count points, with various values given the the individual cards or sets of cards.  Koi-Koi is one of the more popular games and it was featured in the anime movie, Summer War.

Summer Wars is a movie produced by Mamoru Hosoda is about technology, family ties, and the values that hold us together.  The heroine, Natsuki Shinohara, battling it out with a malicious AI named Love Machine in an epic game of Koi-Koi to regain control of a worldwide virtual world called OZ.  This is a great movie that has plenty of action scenes, a well imagined online universe, and plenty of Japanese culture both modern and traditional.  It is just loads of fun to watch this well animated and colorful film.

For souvenirs, you can buy sets of Hanafuda cards manufactured by Nintendo.  They have more expensive Napoleon decks, and anime themed decks with Mario, Spirited Away, and even Pokemon.  These picture cards make awesome souvenirs, and there are many sources of rules online that show you how to play the game.

Shogi and March Comes in Like a Lion
Shogi is also known as Japanese Chess and it has been played in its current form since the 16th century, but it is an even older game.  This game is played on a 9 x 9 grid with two matching armies facing off.  Each player has 20 pentagonal wedge shaped pieces including a king, generals, knights, rook, bishops, lances, and pawns.  The pieces have their name written on them in kanji, and do not have pictures.  It is a fairly complex game like western chess, with a great deal of strategy, and the object of the game is to checkmate the opposing king.

The game is the core driving mechanic in the anime series March Comes in Like a Lion.  The protagonist, Rei Kiriyama, is an orphan who structures his life around the game as his adopting family is not a happy one.  The series centers on this high school student who meets new friends, rises in the ranks of the national Shogi association, and has grueling training and matches with fierce competitors.  I enjoyed seeing how his character grows along with the exciting Shogi matches he plays in (even if I still don't know how to play the game, but I'll figure it out one day).  The character ensemble and stories in this show are top notch.  I really like the Kawamoto sisters too, who start his journey to open himself up to new friends.

This is actually one of my favourite anime series as I just like all the characters.  It is just a really well written drama series without a single superpower or mecha in it.  I'd buy it, but the expensive Aniplex sets in North America are holding me off.

You can buy Shogi games in stores over there in travel sizes and full sizes, but there are Shogi rule books and sets you can buy in English.

Go and Hikaru No Go

Go is an old board game that originated in China more than two millenia ago with more than 46 million players around the world.  It has been played in Japan since the 7th century so it has become part of the cultural framework.  The game is played on a 19 x 19 grid with white and black stones where the object is to control the board and capture your opponent's stones.  The person who has the most territory at the end of the game wins.

This is an older manga (running in Shonen Jump from 1999 to 2003) and it was adapted into a 75 episode anime series (aired from 2001 to 2003).  The hero, Hikaru, meets the spirit of Fujiwara-no-Sai, a Go master from the Heian period.  Through the spirit, Hikaru develops and interest in the game and gets progressively better to eventually enter the international Hokuto cup.

I've never seen the anime, but read many of the earlier chapters when they were translated into English via the print edition of the North American Shonen Jump magazine.  I enjoyed the series, but the series I highlighted first were more enjoyable to me.

You can get Go boards almost anywhere, but it is a popular game in Japan.  I've played othello, but never the much more complex Go game.


There are many other great game-based anime out there too, even Mahjong anime like Saki, so get watching and buy some souvenirs!  On a side note, it seems like contact between cultures is pretty dynamic as you can tell from how these games developed.  See the world, play the game.

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

SKE48 10th Anniversary Chicken Ramen Cup

I'm really late putting up a review of this instant ramen noodle cup.  In late 2019, the idol band SKE48, a sister group for AKB48, had a branded noodle cup produced in collaboration with Ramen Walker magazine.  It was called "SKE48 x Ramen Walker Double 10th Anniversary Instant Ramen Cup".  I happened to grab one to try out the spicy tori paitan flavour.  Tori paitan is a thicker chicken broth with a bit of spice in this version.

The noodle cup is pretty nice, and I'm sure some SKE48 fans have a few of this as collectibles on their shelf.  It comes in an attractive yellow and red cup with pictures of the current members of the idol group on the side.  The cup is a typically higher quality paper cup with a soft smooth foam on the outside that insulates and provides a very good printing surface.
3/4 view of the front of the cup.  Nice bright yellow colours with red highlights.  It looks really dynamic and action packed with cartoon / manga type explosions in white with SKE48 text.  The red and yellow slashes on the lid add to the effect.  The photos of the idols come out beautifully and the whole effect is pretty cool.
A shifted 3/4 view showing a few more idols.
A final 3/4 shifted views with the last two idols.  The 10th anniversary for SKE is in a gold explosion with another yellow and red outline.  Very manga / comic in appearance and even the paneling behind the photos adds to this effect.  The front of the cup was covered in images and I couldn't get all of it in one shot.
Back of the cup.
Back of the cup showing ingredients and manufacturing info from Myojo foods.  Bright yellow panel talks about SKE48 members liking ramen and Nagoya (where they are based) and to visit Ramen Walker to read up on the development of this noodle cup.
Nutritional info. 17.4 grams of fat in this one.
Front of the cup.  You can see they were definitely going for a manga / colour comic effect.  There is even a speech bubble about the gift campaign!
The lid with contest deadlines and action slashes in red and yellow.
Opening the lid reveals some tasty looking toppings.
Toppings include powdered soup base, chilies, egg, big pieces of green onion, and ground meat.
The liquid packet of chili oil on the side and the opened ramen cup.
After adding boiling water and waiting 3 minutes, you have a cup of tasty SKE48 ramen.
It rehydrated nicely and you can see a nice layer of toppings on top of the noodles.
This ramen had a mild savoury soy smell, with a possible hint of garlic. The soup had a nice mild soy / chicken flavour with a spicy hit spice from the chili oil and hot peppers.  Even the meaty bits had good flavour to them along with the green onions, but the eggs were a fluffy addition that didn't add much flavour.  The noodles seemed thicker than normal with a good chew.  A nice cup of noodles overall that would please their fans.
Closeup of the noodles.

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nissin RAOH Smokey Super Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen Bowl Review

Nissin has released a series of RAOH instant ramen bowls that feature tonkotsu broth in combination with mayu (burnt black garlic oil) and soy / miso / hot pepper / dan dan flavours in 2019.  A few of these might stick around, but most are limited editions that will come and go.  Having limited edition noodle flavours is one of the joys of instant ramen, but at the same time, it is dissappointing to see a flavour you love vanish. This series of noodle has a ton of flavour and you must like some degree of spiciness to enjoy them.  Super spicy in Japan doesn't usually mean more than spicy, unlike in Korea where super spicy means head to the fallout shelters NOW.
Nissin RAOH Super Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen Bowl
The lid of the bowl.  Nice looking graphic with the RAOH text in the middle and the characters on the left and right in fiery gold.  You can see flames licking in the background with the thick noodles, dark soup, and a nice pile of ground meat in the foreground.  The name of the bowl runs mostly horizontal in the middle on a indescript black band.
Angle view of the ramen bowl.  You can see the two main features on the bowl art are black and flames.
Allergen info
Nutritional info.  RAOH noodles are pretty good for fat content as they use non-fried noodles.  Still, this comes up to 14.4 grams of fat due to the spicy black garlic oil.
You get a dried noodle disc, a liquid soup base, a pouch of dried cabbage and green onion and ground meat, and a powdered soup base.
Closeup of the dried cabbage, green onion, and ground meat pouch.
To prepare the ramen, dump the dried ingredients in along with the powdered soup base, add 400 mL of boiling water to the bowl, close the lid, and wait 5 minutes.  The dried noodles always take longer to hydrate than the fried ones.
Once the noodles are hydrated you can add the black garlic oil base to the noodles and give it a good stir to loosen up the noodles and combine everything.  It smells really good at this point.
The finished soup.
This particular bowl has a flavour that is both smokey and rich from the black garlic oil combined with soy / spicy peppers.  It smells great and wets your appetite with a spicy and smokey aroma. The prepared soup base is a nice rich brown colour and tastes pretty darn good.  It was hot, but not too spicy and it was full of flavour and not just heat.  The noodles had a great chew and this is a darn good bowl of instant noodles.
Closeup of the noodles.

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Treats From Asian Supermarkets in Calgary and Edmonton for Summer 2019

You can find all kinds of treats and food from around Asia at supermarkets like H-Mart, T&T, 100 Tops (Calgary), and Lambda (Calgary).  Here is an oddball selection of goodies I found over the summer and early fall in Edmonton and Calgary.  Instant noodles with Japanese flavours can be found at most Asian supermarkets (Nissin out of Hong Kong), but packaged noodles from Japan aren't uncommon, but are harder to find these days.  Japanese cup noodles on the the other hand are crazy hard to find unless you have a secret source - you can find them in Vancouver (especially at some Japanese stores in Richmond), but they are next to impossible to find in Calgary and Edmonton.
A small haul of cookies, rice crackers, and two kinds of gummies from Japan.  Japanese gummies are always good.
Pikachu furukake - seaweed sprinkles for white rice.
Not exactly Japanese, but these limited edition Coke flavours for raspberry and peach are nice to find in regular supermarkets.  The Georgia Peach is a tasty soda that I really like.
This spicy, kimchee flavoured Chikin Ramen from Japan.  I'll stick with the regular, but cool to see.
Here are mixes to make oyakodon, gyudon, and some other dishes.  I make my sauces for these from scratch, but these were decent if you don't have the ingredients.
I found these little steamed Bao Bao - gotta love the name.  These are spicy Korean.
Miso soup and bao.  The buns are tasty but definitely spicy!
I found these giant instant yakisoba noodle trays that each make a huge portion of instant noodles for 2142 kcal.  I hope you are making these for a party as these GIGAMAX are way too much for one person.
H-Mart carries refrigerated taiyaki and baumkuchen from Japan - these are refrigerated - not frozen.  Cool!
I always use curry blocks to make my curry, but here is the actual Japanese curry powder you could use for custom recipes.
You don't have to go to Japan to get premium Peach Mint Kit Kats.
These are the new ruby chocolate Kit Kats from Japan.  I believe Nestle has an exclusive on this new kind of ruby chocolate which also uses the pulp of the berry and not just the cocoa seeds.  There is a real difference in flavour - quite pleasant and rich.
Glico cream biscuits.  When you can buy these in the tin, they store for several years and can be used to supplement emergency food stores.  My post on Japanese emergency rations is here:
Takoyaki potato chips.  Often these can also be flavoured puffed corn snacks too.
Instant noodles that are cooked a little crisper to be used as potato chips - no water needed.
Canned coffee!
An interesting cider out of Nagasaki, Japan.
The are great little gummies from UHA that were on sale.  They look like little grapes with a firmer outside layer and and inside layer that is like jello.  Good flavours.
Chocolate assortment pack from Japan.
UHA yogurt chews.  Always tasty.
I bought a canned coffee and some plum flavour chews, green plum and sour plum.

Just a tiny sample of what is in the grocery stores these days.  Have a look for yourself and enjoy your shopping for a tasty treat.

Some other local posts for ramen and sights.

Introductory guide ebook for the price of a latte at Amazon.

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More ramen reviews and pop culture here.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Sampling Japan and Enjoying A Fantastic September Weekend in Calgary

Went down to Calgary to visit family for the weekend and had a great time walking around Kensington and along the Bow River.  The streets were packed with folks out enjoying the sun and clear skies on Saturday and Sunday.  If I had known Beakerhead was on this weekend, I might have tried to purchase tickets to attend the science and art even on Saturday night at Prince's Island.  As it turned out I went to a pretty good BBQ on Saturday evening, so no complaints.

I hadn't been down to Kensington for many months and visited a Japanese lifestyle store that opened on 10 Street recently.  The shop is called nanao kimono and it has a little bit of everything you would want for Japanese furnishings, gifts, and other goods.  They had some nice stationary, pottery, lunch boxes, furoshiki cloths you can make into handbags, and much more.  Friendly staff and a nice shop made for a fun browsing and shopping experience.   I bought a Godzilla mug with a Hokusai theme to it and we also picked up some ceramic plates and ramen bowls.  Japanese culture seems to make inroads everywhere, especially for food.  Nearby was the Ikemen ramen restaurant too that I've only visited once and I thought it was pretty good that time.
Inside nanao kimono.
Not too far away was the decent Ikemen ramen restaurant.
I play Pokemon Go too so walking up and down 10 Street and Kensington Road gives you lots of gyms and pokestops to hit.  Walking along the river we visited the Peace Bridge which was full of people, and a small film crew doing some kind of skateboard shoot.  People were out in force to enjoy the good weather.  Lots of electric scooters too right now as they were just introduced to Calgary and Edmonton.  I kind of wish that Edmonton had a nicer pathway system along the river that connected to a lively district, but that is a work in progress.  The pathway and park down by the Peace Bridge were impressively finished. 
Peace Bridge.  A very cool bridge.
There was a gym in the middle of the Peace Bridge where I lucked into a Mewtwo raid.  I didn't catch a Shiny Mewtwo, but it was a fun raid battle with 12 other folks.  I caught mine!
Mewtwo raid in the middle of the Peace Bridge.  And yes, there were a fair number of Tauros around on Saturday.
My Tyranitar takes a bite out of Mewtwo.
View down the river from the bridge.  The whole thing lights up really good at night.
 On Sunday, we went to eat at Tokyo Market, an crowd friendly izakaya over on Centre Street.  It is in an old building that used to have a pharmacy and other shops that are long gone, but it is nice to see the building full of people eating and enjoying themselves.  We went for lunch and it was fairly busy, picking up more customers as we ate.  The ambience of the restaurant was neat, with lots of rustic woodwork - like in an old Japanese diner - and the Japanese cultural decor was really nifty.  Tokyo Market has a system where you basically select the items you want to eat on a menu with a marker then take it to the cashier to order and pay.  It works pretty good - kind of like a small restaurant in Japan where you order from a machine.  There were lots of  $5 and $6 plates of food to order and the quality was great for the price.  We had yakitori, ramen, curry rice, takoyaki, and it was all pretty good.  The ramen was fairly good, with the soup being fairly tasty, the noodles firm, and a good amount of topping for a $7 bowl.  You can have your ramen here and your yakitori too without breaking the bank!  I'd visit this place again without hesitation.
Tokyo Market Restaurant.
Menu - no oden available though.
I like the decor and the giant sumo lounge sword.
The restaurant has a whole wall of snacks you can buy from and some reasonably priced sushi to go.
Three kinds of yakitori.  Lamb, chicken, and pork belly.  The lamb was really tasty, but our pork belly was a little dry.
My Shoyu ramen with beef brisket and pork and egg.  It was quite creamy for a shoyu, but tasted pretty good with the ingredients.  I'm never going to complain about a $7 bowl of ramen - good taste at a good price.
Afterwards, we hit up a Chinese supermarket.  There is Lambda Grocery and 100 Tops market up by 16th Avenue, a few blocks north of Tokyo Market.  Bought some Japanese sweets and some canned coffee there to enjoy later!  All too soon, it was time to head back north to get to work on Monday.
Lots of canned coffee!
Japanese chocolate variety pack.
I picked up some plum candy and a coffee.
One of the ramen bowls we bought at nanao kimono.
That's all for now. Have a great day!

Introductory guide ebook for the price of a latte at Amazon.
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More ramen reviews and pop culture here.