Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Artisans in Akihabara

Flickr / Iyo

2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan opened about a year ago according to a couple of articles I read.  It is a set of 48 shops and restaurants that is located right under the raised rail tracks of the Yamanote Line (see the website for a listing).  It is part of an urban renewal project by the rail company and it looks like it is done right.  The entrance to it seems to be down a long, well lit tunnel of thick white support columns for the rail track with shops stretching into the distance.  Just NW of the UDX building, it is called Aki-Oka as it is postioned between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations.
Flickr / Iyo
The next time I am here, I'd like to check the place out as the photos of it make it look pretty trendy and it would be a nice change from the world of anime. The artisan shops have many hand crafted items ranging from pottery to wooden replicas of real guns that shoot rubber bands.  The efficient use of space under the train tracks is something I really like about Tokyo.

I have updated my Akihabara map to include this mall below.

View Akihabara Highlights in a larger map

Japanese Key Chain Toys / Mascots / Widgets

Japanese Key Chain Toys / Mascots / Widgets
My last post was kind of serious, so here is a fun one!  The Japanese have the best key chains, although I can't see using them as such as it would kind of wreck them in short notice. In the photo above, I have a number of different key chains shown that were purchased and came in blister packs or as gashapon prizes.

If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch you can get apps that simulate the soybean popper and the bubble wrap popper from the Apple Appstore.  Have a look at my Anime / Manga iPhone Apps page for the links to the Appstore.

Starting from the bottom left hand corner and going clockwise I'll describe them.
  1. The big red brick is an electronic toy which simulates the pull tab on a cardboard shipping box or shipping sleeve.  You can basically open boxes all day with this.  Little magnets give it resistance and every so often you'll get a surprise noise!
  2. This purple egg thing is one of a set of Evangelion voice eggs.  You push the button in the middle and you'll get the voice of one of the Evangelion characters speaking some lines from the remake movies.
  3. Yes, the green soybean looking thing is a soybean popping toy. You can squeeze out little green edamame beans, one of which will have a funky looking face on it, kind of like an emoji.
  4. The next item is a taiyaki fish mascot made out of a gummy rubber material.  You can squeeze it and a little red bean paste fish pops out.  This one is a little gross as the little fish kind of looks like fish guts.
  5. The blue box with what looks like little bubble wrap bubbles on top is a bubble popping toy.  You push to bubbles to make little popping noises and every so often you get a mystery sound!
  6. This one is one of my favourites.  It is a fake can of beer.  You pull the pop tab and get pop -> hiss -> pour noises.  Again, every so often you get a mystery sound.
  7. Finally, a nifty Zaku head from Gundam.  The monoeye moves back and forth when you push a lever underneath and the eye lights up! Fun!
Anyhow, these are pretty fun little toys from Japan and some of the reasons why I like Japanese pop culture!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The iPhone as an Example of the Supply Chain Shift

Industrial Robot    Avramc / Flickr
 There has been some media commotion around an article published in the New York Times about why iPhones are made in China.  This article covers why there really isn't an alternative to manufacturing the phones anywhere else but Asia. This whole thing even affects Japan even though - gasp - it is in Asia!

In a nutshell, the article could be summarized as only Asia has the ability to prototype / manufacture at huge economies of scale.  This is because:
  • It is incredibly quick there.
  • It is nimble and responsive to changing requirements.
  • There is close proximity between component manufacturers.
  • There is a large middle-skilled engineering workforce, and lots of cheap labour.  The engineers are supposed to be impractical to find in North America.
This new manufacturing / supply chain is responsive as the workers also tolerate conditions that are unacceptable in North America, but I love how an Apple exec says how fast and flexible the Foxconn factories are without mentioning the conditions.  However, equally as important, this article shows how the global supply chain has changed so that everything hubs out of Asia and that it puts you at an incredible disadvantage to do otherwise.  It doesn't look like things are going to go back EVER to the way they were for those engineering jobs and manufacturing in general in the United States.

In case you haven't seen this article yet, you can have a look at it here:

Now this brings up another point. With America and other industrialized nations losing manufacturing jobs (this is where it affects Japan too) there has been some talk about how the loss of skilled manufacturing jobs will eventually impact innovation as it is a virtuous cycle between the two.  R&D and manufacturing are linked as the process of manufacturing generates product improvement and and innovators learn from the engineers making stuff. Now, Japan has definitely done better at keeping manufacturing jobs than in North America as the companies kept more production at home, but even they are changing.  There is also a level of unemployment in Japan that is rarely talked about.  Googling Japan, unemployment, contract workers, and homelessness will show you plenty of information on this.

Some articles linked to innovation and manufacturing are shown below:
Unfortunately, these articles also indicate there will be fewer jobs due to advanced information technology supplanting many traditional white collar jobs too.  In the old economy, if you lost your job, you could migrate to a job in another part of the economy.  However, due to advances in AI and software engineering, it looks like the job you may have moved to may already be gone as the technological advances displace jobs in multiple economic sectors at the same time.  For example, automated checkouts already replace cashiers (bank tellers too) across all businesses.  Highly skilled clerical jobs are no longer needed as AI algorithms do sorting, searching, and minor analytic work automatically everywhere.  Even IT administrative jobs are eliminated as automation reduces the number of administrators required for networks and server support. Career planning and the definition of good work is going to be a very lively topic.

Manufacturing advances in the construction industry are also going to eliminate trades jobs due to innovation when flat pack modular housing / building is adopted.  Take a look at this. Tata in India sells a flat pack house (albeit a small one ) for $700, and more advanced homes are available as shown in this link

More importantly, this can be scaled up for large structures.  For example, a 30 story building in 15 days using flat pack tech.

 Anyhow, these advances are not necessarily bad things as doing things a "better way" is something that humans always strive for.  I just hope we hit a new equilibrium without ruining the welfare of too many people in the process by managing the change better.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Always - The Godzilla Trailer

I saw a trailer about a Godzilla 2009 film on Youtube some time ago.  The trailer looked like a remake of the original Godzilla as it was set in 50's or 60's Japan with lots of atmosphere and fleeing people.  It looked pretty darn good, including the Dragonball Goku type thing happening at the end.  I kind of figured it was semi-official, but of course there was no movie ever released.

Well, mystery solved, years later.  I saw the beautiful poster for Always 3 and a sublink to Godzilla on Third Street, saw the images, and it clicked.  There never was any movie, but there was a fantastic trailer made to help promote the 2nd Always movie.  I'm actually kind of interested now in seeing the three movies, with the third coming out in 2012.  The movies look like they are "a slice of life" type movies set in the 50's and 60's or Japan's Golden Age.  They are based on a still running manga.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Techie Japanese Watches / Yamanote Line Souvenirs

There are some pretty nifty watches available from Japan.  Tokyo Flash and Seahope make some of the coolest ones.  The Tokyo Flash watches give me watch envy as the design work is outstanding.  You might not be able to read the watch displays without a manual but it is cool to show off.

The other day I noticed this pretty cool Kisai 7 watch that looks like something out of Tron.  It is from Tokyo Flash and seriously made me want to get one.
You can find these watches online at various web stores, but I think it would be pretty cool to actually shop for one if you happen to be in Tokyo.  While I think Tokyo Flash only has an online store, Seahope does have a store in Tokyo and another one in Yokohama.  The Tokyo store is called "two O two" and located somewhere in Shinjuku Station (I'd have to ask for directions with the printed map in hand).

One cool watch from Seahope is the Yamanote Line Watch.  It looks like the signage from the Stations and is shown below.  They have more abstract designs too, but while I like this watch it looks kind of bulky.

two O two 新宿メトロピア店
営業時間 11:00~21:00
新宿区新宿3-25-1 B1F
TEL:FAX (03)3226-4202 

Shinjuku store two O two Metoropia
11:00 to 21:00 Hours
〒 160-0022
Shinjuku, Shinjuku 3-25-1 B1F
Metoropuromuna Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line Shinjuku

Map to Shinjuku Station two O two store

UPDATE: 2013/02/25 - I spent 40 minutes running around Shinjuku Station trying to find the two O two store.  No one I asked at the other stores that were on the map or at information could show me where it was.  I'm assuming it has moved or something.  So hunt for it only at your peril as I'm not sure where it is.

While we are on the subject of the Yamanote Line Watch, I have to love how the railway / train companies over there manage to make mass transit cool and trendy.  They have help from trainspotting otaku who love trains, but everyone likes the Yamanote Line.  There are many wonderful souvenirs for the Yamanote Line ranging from toys, key chains, and even electronic coin banks that play the sounds from the stations. While I was in Tokyo I rode the Yamanote Line a great deal to get around as it is a great way to access much of central Tokyo and a great way to get to Akihabara or Ikebukuro.  I'm right into all these souvenirs too.  This link will take you to a web site that plays the Yamanote Line train announcements.  Below, there are a few more photos of Yamanote Line loot that could be bought.

Toy Train With Colors and a Pinky Street Figure   Flickr / Cat
Closeup of the Green Stripes Train of the Yamanote Line   Flickr / Cat

Yamanote Train Car Bank    Flickr / Danny Choo

Saturday, January 7, 2012

JCC - Fall 2011 Japanese Collectible Instant Ramen and Canned Coffee

UCC Evangelion Collectible Canned Coffee

Score! Managed to pick up the UCC canned coffee 3 figure set of Asuka, Rei, and Marie from AmiAmi.  They are nicely detailed little figures, each holding a can of yummy UCC coffee.  You can even place the figures on top of the cans, using the can as a display base.  Nothing like product placement from the Evangelion remake movies!  Coffee is good until October 27, 2012 so no rush to drink them either.

UCC, a Japanese beverage company, has been releasing Neon Genesis Evangelion branded coffee since 1997, but has been going strong with the new Evangelion movies. These canned coffees are ready to drink hot or cold and are basically their popular milk coffee with a nifty tin and figure.

If you are wondering what Neon Genesis Evangelion (involves giant biomechanical robots and doomsday prophecies) is all about, check out Wikipedia here.

Nissin Gundam  40th Anniversary Collectable Cup Noodle and Gundam Model
Managed to snag these over at JBOX and even got an extra for a relative.  These were kind of hard to get, but I'm pretty happy I got one.  You get a seafood flavour Cup Noodle in the left one, and a Gundam RX-78 model in the right cup that is branded with NISSIN logos.  You need to add boiling water to your instant noodles in the left cup to get them ready to eat, and some assembly is required on the right to assemble your plastic model on the right.

This complements my original Gundam Cup Noodle with model I brought back from Tokyo years ago now.  Original Gundam Cup Noodle shown below.

If you are wondering what Gundam is (involves large robots and combat) check out Wikipedia here.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Free or Cheap Japanese Iphone Games

Awhile back I posted about Anime Themed Iphone / Ipad apps.  Today, I'm going to list a bunch of free or cheap games that are Japanese in origin or in theme.  I've tried a bunch of these and they are pretty fun or at least have the potential to be fun!

My other app list pages:
These apps are free - but always check the price before buying.

(new August 2012) Mysterious Creatures
Find the mystery creatures lurking in the piles of small whitefish (a Japanese food item).  Bizarre!

(new August 2012) Mochi Pettan
Make mochi in the traditional style with a big mallet!

(new August 2012) Wako BBQ
Grill food in the Korean / Japanese style.

(new August 2012) Taiyaki
Make tasty Taiyaki with different fillings.

ElectroMaster By xionchannel
Zap your competitors.  This is a little NES style 8-bit game that is pretty fun.

HungryMaster By xionchannel
Turn monsters into food.  This is the followup to ElectroMaster.

Boost by Nitobi Software
This one is a pretty fun little app.  You try to fly as far as you can in a little diamond shaped spaceship while picking up little fuel blocks and avoiding the big spherical asteroids.  You burn fuel at a constant rate, so boosting as much as you can is the only way to keep moving as fast as possible to replenish your fuel. I was unable to find the link to this app, so you'll have to search the app store.  Not made in Japan either, but fun.

Planet Bom Bom By URARA-WORKS Co., Ltd.
This is a fun app where you shoot robot girl into asteroids surrounding your planet.  She'll bounce off the sides of the screen and the more rocks you smash, the fewer are left to hit your planet.

Cat Shot By DAN-BALL
This is a little gem of a game.  You are a cat with a big slingshot who is shooting balls at fish flying through the air.  You knock them down and another cat catches them in a basket while another brings a reload for your slingshot.

CAT PAWING!By K.K. Amuzenet!/id425333532?mt=8
Try to hit as many things in the air with your paws before the doors close.

Cat Wake Up By FujiTV
Kids will go absolutely nuts over this as it is about flipping sleeping and waking cats into the other state.  They meow and act really cute.

SUSHI ROLL!! By FujiTV!!/id423321464?mt=8
Make sushi for the customers.  Another kitchen / server type game, but it is pretty hard but free.

CapsuleToy By Game Fish
This is a pretty amusing little game where you put a coin into a capsule machine and collect a toy.  You can display the toys in your room and take pictures of them.  Can't figure out where you put the toys after you fill up the room!

The following apps cost money $$$.

MewMew Tower By B3 United Inc
See how high you can stack different shaped kitty cats.  Cute graphics.

Warrior Nation-Gunner By Park Sun-woo
A left-right scrolling side shooter.  Was free when I got it, but it seems pretty fun.  Korean - but that's close to Japan right?

Game Dev Story By Kairosoft Co.,Ltd
This game is not the cheapest, but do go on sale every so often. This is a fun little resource / time management game.  This one has you running a game company.

Mega Mall Story By Kairosoft Co.,Ltd
This game is not the cheapest, but do go on sale every so often. This game has you running a mall.

Oh! Edo Towns By Kairosoft Co.,Ltd!-edo-towns/id474177077?mt=8
This game is not the cheapest, but do go on sale every so often. Build an Edo period Japanese town.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Japanese Cell Phones, the Kindle, and the iPad

This situation isn't quite "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" but it is interesting how these devices have affected Japan and the greater world.  Once upon a time, about a decade ago, no one would have disputed that Japanese cellphones (ケイタイ or keitai) were the most advanced little multipurpose devices that existed.  The Japanese even implemented the world's first cellular network.  Well, at around the same rate (give or take a few years) as the rest of the world, the Japanese phones makers basically lost their monopoly on these ultra-cool little devices to the smartphone created originally by Apple as the iPhone.

Flickr / Nemo's great uncle
An example of a Japanese cell phone shown on the left (this one even has an FM radio tuner).  Other examples of Japanese cell phone functionality include mobile games, reading manga and books, e-mail, instant messengers, audio players, flash video, GPS, watching TV,  e-money / instant payment (Mobile Suica), etc.  While most of this stuff doesn't seem very advanced, now, at the time, it was pretty cool and no one else had it or only had bits of it.
Blackberries, then the iPhone basically changed the game.  The iPhone was the great game changer as it was not only functional - being a general purpose computer and phone with a great touch user interface, it was stylish.  This was followed by the Android smartphones which will eventually end the domination of the regular cell phone.

As of the 2nd quarter of 2011, smartphones accounted for 45.5% of all cell phones shipped in Japan, with the phones being split between Android and iOS. No wonder the Japanese phone makers are scrambling to build smartphones (Samsung and Apple are the big winners).  This just demonstrates how innovation can start just about anywhere, although the disruptive innovation here was not a low end product, but a high-end smartphone product that became ever cheaper and more capable.  More about Android / iOS.  In terms of anime character goods, there are tons of anime themed cases / decals for iPhones, but not for the other phones which still have a great variety of charms and such. 

Flickr / theunquietlibrary
This now brings us to the Kindle e-book reader.  I actually love my Kindle and have read about 35-40 novels on it since I got it in 2010.  It is very light, portable (can use with a single hand), easy on the eyes with the e-ink, and it is about reading - long form reading.  I don't really care about all the new media hype about "more than reading and such" as it is just a distraction.   I'll talk about this new type of reading that is being hyped in another article some time, but suffice it to say I am interested in immersing myself in good, old fashioned storytelling from the point of view of the author.  I am enjoying their creative work - with or without the help of an editor.  Writing in this manner is a one person job and shouldn't be a team effort or be tied to some other media forms within the narrative.

The Japanese also developed e-book readers, see the Sony models for example, but these basically fell flat on their face as the e-readers and books were too expensive, the bookstores for them were hard to use, there was limited content available that was also locked up on one platform.  The Amazon Kindle then comes along.  The Kindle is a great little e-reader, crazy battery life, with cheap books, and a massive library (based on Amazon's amazing shopping / search experience) with cheap prices until the Publisher's agency model was put into place.  Well, the cheap books are still there - look at all of the indie authors, and this is a model that would probably adapt well to Japan with doujinshi (just not derivative works based on copyrighted material).  It will be interesting to see how independent software and creative graphical storytelling develop in Japan with the Kindle (both reader and tablet), and the iPad/iPhone influences.

Flickr / Tsubaki Kaworu
Now for the iPad.  I have to say that this device is excellent, and have one with about 500 apps on it (mostly games), but kinda heavy (need 2 hands to use it).  It is the best darn tablet out there from a consumer point of view (e.g. watching streaming media, shopping, reading magazines, casual e-mail, web surfing, and especially content shifting).  No way the Kindle competes in this space, or even most cell phones or smartphones. I also mentioned content shifting earlier.  I think this is pretty important as it allows people to read web articles, news, and blogs in a reader-friendly format (much like a Kindle reading experience).  Readers like Instapaper, Flipbook, Read It Later, and Zite are simplifying reading on the internet as you can have the articles you are interested in automatically picked and read them on a number of platforms as simple text with graphics.  No distractions from the reading experience which many web usability designers don't seem to comprehend.

The main winning feature for all iOS devices is the application library available in the application store (damn their stupid trademark tricks).  The massive number of apps makes the device so useful and fun.  I'm also amazed at the time of writing how many free apps there are on a given day.  If you had no money, you could still build a free software library over  a year with some of your favourite apps on it.  By free, I mean really free, with no ads and other annoying in-app purchases that cripple the software.  Check out the Appchronicles and Apppicker websites which I have found very useful.  This is something that really doesn't happen on Android as most things are already free, you just have to live with the annoying ads.  For older children it is almost the same price to buy the cheapest 8GB iPod Touch then load up on the free software available instead of buying a DS or PSP (with 3 or 4 games).  You will get hundreds of free games on the iPod instead of having just a few on the DS or PSP and the kids get a multipurpose entertainment device.

At this time, the iPad is insanely popular, and it is a very useful device as it is a nicely packaged general purpose computer.  The Cult of Mac had an interesting article about why this tablet is hated by so many industries and they are sooo right!  Even in the traditional computer game industries where the Japanese have been the leaders for so long (other than first person shooters) is changing.  Casual gaming via iOS and smartphone devices is eating up the market for most video games as the games are either free or so much cheaper for the same thing on a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS.  This is a major disruption that is bad for Nintendo and Sony who depend on hardware, but good for consumers as there should be greater creativity and availability of software for cheap (due to the way the stores operate).  The iPad / smartphones are better hardware with superior software and interface for a cheaper price.  Again, there really isn't a  Japanese competitor right now either.

It looks like Jobs out-innovated everyone here with his ideas with Android adopting Job's model to succeed differently.  Time ticks on though and it'll be different in ten more years.

AFTER NOTE (Update Feb 1, 2012):  NEC in Japan just announce there will be 7000 layoffs in Japan.  Apparently their cell phone sales are not doing so well in the economic downturn and Apple iPhone competition.  The game has certainly changed.