Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Vocaloid - Hatsune Miku Breaks Out

I have to admit I like Hatsune Miku.  I've listened to a bunch of her songs and I don't like them all, but there have been a few I've really enjoyed, in particular, "The World Is Mine."  What started out a simple persona for a musical singing synthesizer program has ballooned out into a world-wide phenomenon that is known in most Japanese pop culture circles.
Hatsune Miku   Flickr / tataquax
You may have even seen a commercial with her in it for Toyota.  The singing voice is high-pitched and for some songs it works better than others - but Hatsune's peppy personality and performances on stage are winners!  There are sculpted figures of her, cosplayers imitating her, and she has quite a line of merchandise.  You can even buy her songs on iTunes.

Hatsune Cosplay  Flickr / Han Shot First

Hatsune Miku (初音ミク) is a singing synthesizer application with a female persona, developed by Crypton Future Media. It uses Yamaha Corporation's Vocaloid 2 synthesizing technology. The name of the character comes from a fusion of the Japanese for first (初 hatsu), sound (音 ne) and future (Miku (ミク) sounds like a nanori reading of future, 未来, normally read as "mirai"), referring to her position as the first of Crypton's "Character Vocal Series". She was the second Vocaloid to be sold using the Vocaloid 2 engine and the first Japanese Vocaloid to use the Japanese version of the Vocaloid 2 engine. Her voice is sampled from Japanese voice actress, Saki Fujita. Hatsune Miku has performed at her concerts onstage as a projection. An awesome intro from Wikipedia.

Hatsune isn't the first artificial singing personality that I can think of in Japanese pop culture. The first goes to Sharon Apple from Macross Plus another anime with amazing music and great mecha action.  Still, Hatsune's merchandising and publicity is amazing and there are so many fan videos on Youtube and is she the start of the virtual idol of the future?  Is the holographic technology that is used for her live concerts (Yes - she has live concerts) with crowds of adoring fans the future of broadcast concerts around the world in simulcast?  It is just amazing and it's made in Japan.  She also has PSP videogames and has starred in both Google Chrome and Toyota Car Commercials.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Three Visual Illusionists (Cloud, Levitation, Camouflage)

I have three artists working in the visual medium that create unusual pieces or photographs. We have a Dutch artist who creates clouds, a Japanese artist who levitates, and a Chinese artist who is a chameleon.
Cloud Flickr / TomRaven
Berndnaut Smilde
Berndnaut Smilde is a Dutch artist who creates indoor clouds, not just fog machine effects, but clouds.  They don't last very long, but they are beautiful little wisps that look out of place and surreal indoors. Using a vapourized glycol compound, and fine water droplets in a damp room, he can create realistic clouds that last a few seconds.  It would be pretty neat to walk into a room with a wet cloud in it.  I've been on top of mountain ridge lines in some strong winds and have seen similar effects.  The wind hits the ridge, compresses the air and a mist effect forms on the leeward side of the ridge.  Smoke monsters from Star Trek!

Natsumi Hayashi
Natsumi Hayashi, of Tokyo, posts jump shots on Yowayowa Camera Woman Diary that make her look like she is floating effortlessly through the air.  She has hundreds of published shots and is basically a still life performance artist to get just the right motion, expression, appearance and pose for the photographs.  There are many, many takes and the results are pretty stunning as she looks like she is floating.  Apparently she has a large following and deserves it!  Hit the links below to see many, many more stunning photos.

Liu Bolin
Liu Bolin is an amazing camouflage artist from Beijing - also known as the Invisible Man.  He basically blends right into the background by having himself painted to match.  It is a painstaking process and the results either conceal him really well, or it looks like the active camouflage from Ghost in the Shell or Predator.  I would be something to see for real and do a double take when you notice someone is actually there!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Okashi (Sweets) Land, Character Street and Ramen Street at First Avenue, Tokyo Station

First Avenue Tokyo Station is connected directly to the Yaesu exits of Tokyo Station in the basement, first and second floor.   It is a specialized three story mall with 100 shops. There is Okashi Land (sweets shops) as a section of Kitchen Land, Character Street (for anime character shops) and Ramen Street (ramen shops/restaurants) all attached to Tokyo Station! There are also Gift Plazas and Gourmet Plazas (for traditional food).  I wish all train stations were like this.  This place could be a nice place to hit if you have no time to get to Akihabara, or if you just want to visit it like me as it sounds pretty interesting.  Hmmm.  If you are heading out to the airport or transferring this would be a nice easy stop with access to the train if you made sure you had enough time - don't cut it too close!
Hello Kitty Store  Flickr / jpellgen
I first found out about this a little over a year ago, but couldn't figure out how to find it, but I've placed it on the map below.  Here is the official website.  In Japanese with more options and the official map is here.

View Marunouchi, Tokyo Station in a larger map

While you are in the area, don't forget to visit the Daimaru Department Store which is close by as it is just outside / connected to the train station via the Yaesu North Exit.  The 13 story dept. store has an extensive selection of cosmetics, fashions and some big food floors! Daimaru Dept. Store link.
Time Magazine Travel Link of 10 Things To Do with Daimaru Dept Listed for Kimonos on 10th Floor.

The train companies over in Japan have realized that to increase revenue they need to capitalize on the fact they are also real estate developers, as the population of Japan isn't rising so they won't be making more revenue off of passengers.  The train companies own the rail lines, the stations and often the real estate around it.  The train stations are marvels of integrated transportation, shopping, entertainment and dining.  Japanese people are spending more time in these train station malls that are not just transfer points now, but entertainment destinations too.  Tons of tourist traffic also passes through here and it is an easy stopover.  They have even coined a phrase "ekitame” which is a comination of eki (station) and entame (entertainment) to refer to this phenomenon.  First Street Tokyo Station was the majorly successful forerunner of this phenomenon which is bound to spread to other rail stations.  See my post about the Tokyo Skytree and rail hub shopping for more on this subject.

Tokyo Character Street
It was Character Street that first grabbed my attention as an Ultraman store was located here.  Tokyo Character Street has had millions of visitors since it opened in 2008.  People are coming to check out over 20 big-name character goods stores from well known anime and other media. It is pretty nice to have a concentration of shops like this!
A listing of some of the stores follows below.
  • SHOP JUMP -  Goods from manga comics serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump such as One Piece and Naruto!
  • TOMICA SHOP - Toy cars and much more.
  • SHOP PLARAIL - Toy trains.
  • NHK Character Shop - with Domo! More Domo merchandise than you can shake a stick at.          
  • Snoopy Town Mini  - "Peanuts" goods with Snoopy and colleagues.
  • Donguri Garden (Garden acorn) - Has "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" and "My Neighbor Totoro" with many other Studio Ghibli character goods.
  • Fuji TV Shop - With the Blue doggy mascot of Fuji TV and more.
  • Asahi shop - TV Ashahi characters such as Doraemon and Sweet Pretty and Crayon Shin-chan.
  • NTV shop - Array of popular shows and characters from NTV!
  • Ultraman World M78 - The only official shop in Tokyo for Ultra Man goods.
  • Lego brick click - Welcome to the world of LEGO!
  • Rilakkuma Store - The shop of the cute cuddly bear - a Sanrio character.
  • Pretty Cure Store - Full of the popular Pretty Cure goods! First official shop.
  • Hello Kitty shop - Large selection of official Sanrio Hello Kitty goods and more.        
  • Miffy Style - Miffy the bunny.
Here's an interesting article: hello-kitty-miffy-stores-open-in-first-avenue-tokyo-station
Video walkthrough of Character Street found on Youtube.
Another video walkthrough of Character Street found on Youtube.

Tokyo Ramen Street
This area opened in April 2011 and features ramen shops operated by eight famous Tokyo ramen outfits. You must find this tasty street of noodles in the massive Tokyo Station, but you might just follow the crowd around lunch time or end up on a bullet train out of town.  Look for the signs and it is accessed directly via Yaesu Underground Exit of Tokyo Station.  The restaurants are open 11 am to 10:30 pm usually.

Signage to Ramen Street via Creative Commons License from Norisa
Tasty Ramen via Creative Commons License from rhosoi
More Tasty Ramen from Honda via Creative Commons License from ka2hik0
  1. Kani-senmon Keisuke Kita no Sho featuring creations by a ramen innovator;
  2. Menya Shichisai with its famous soy sauce ramen.
  3. Rokurinsha Tokyo with a permanent lineup for its tsukemen.  People wait an hour here!
  4. Ramen Mutsumiya, renowned for its popular miso ramen.
  5. Tokyo Station Ikaruga, the second restaurant of one of Tokyo's most famous ramen restaurants.
  6. Hirugao, a branch of the very popular Setagaya chain, specializing in shio ramen.
  7. Ramen Honda, a new and popular restaurant with consistent lineups.
  8. Junk-Garage, which started maze soba, where the noodles are topped with a thick sauce.

Tokyo Okashi Land

This just launch in April of 2012.  You can enjoy the treats from the big three Japanese snack makers and more at Tokyo Okashi Land. Calbee (chips), Morinaga (chocolate), Glico (Pocky) are some of the snack food manufacturers here with freshly made and limited edition treats.  Glico has freshly made chocolate almonds and more.  You can also get fresh fried potato chips from Calbee with chocolate or cheese sauce.  These shops are called “antenna shops” and are used by the companies to measure public reaction to new products).  Access via the Yaesu Central exit of Tokyo Station.

Apparently Fujiya is selling Peko-chan’s Hat (Milky Cream), a hat-shaped cream puff with a very sweet smooth cream inside.  For all cream puff lovers this is probably pretty tasty.  Peko-chan is Fujiya's mascot, a cute little cartoon girl.

Other Tokyo Anime / Otaku Highlights Worth Visiting

The Ultra Tall Tokyo Skytree - World's Highest Tower

The Tokyo Skytree opened on May 22, 2012.  It pierces the sky over Sumida Ward in Tokyo where it is located and is a replacement for the Tokyo Tower for extending HD TV transmissions.  This tower is the tallest tower in the world at a height of 634 metres (the height is a Japanese pun meaning Musashi - the name of the area the tower is in). The Skytree is the second tallest building in the world, with the 828 metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai being the tallest building in the world.  All we need now is for a Mission Impossible mission to be set here like Ghost Protocol.  For scale, another one of the taller towers in the world is the 553 metre CN Tower in Toronto, Canada and the classic Tokyo Tower that Godzilla smashes is only 332.5 metres high.  See my blog post on the construction of the Skytree and size comparisons here.
Flickr / shin Suzuki
Angry Godzilla with the Tokyo Skytree model - noooo, it just got built!  by Tostzilla
This is a very pretty tower that is all lit up with LEDs at night and can change color.  All tall buildings should light up at night!  Hong Kong is particularly good at this.  I just kind of wish this giant tree also had some branches with holographic leaves or something - that would have been pretty cool.  The Japanese have a ton of myth and anime / video game symbolism involving the Tree of Life, the World Tree, or Yggdrasil.  Skytree is so tall that people worry about ice forming on it and falling down in the winter too.  I am definitely visiting the Skytree the next time I'm in Tokyo for the tower and the interesting attractions right at its base.  Official Skytree website here.
Flickr / shin Suzuki
Skytree   Flickr / Kentaro Ohno
Flickr / kimubert
Observation deck   Flickr / Kentaro Ohno
Observation decks with fabulous views are located in the tower at 350 metres (higher than the Tokyo Tower at the lower deck already) and 450 metres along with restaurants, shops and see through floors that let you look straight down.  Right now the you cannot ascend the tower as tickets have been sold out until July 11, the pre-booking reservation period. This was done as a crowd control measure and apparently everyone wants to experience this tower so I guess it worked.  Of course, it is extra to get to the upper observation deck.

The main complex at the tower's base is called Tokyo Solamachi. This is just a seven-story shopping mall with 312 tenants that also includes an office complex, a dome theater, and an aquarium.  A new development called Tokyo Sky Tree Town surrounds the complex.  The town has an open air market lined with cherry blossom and red pine trees.  Over a half-million people visited the tower and the town complex on the first weekend, far exceeding the anticipated estimate of four hundred thousand.  Twenty six thousand people visited the reservation only observation decks.  THAT IS CROWDED.  Some 32 million people are expected to visit in the first year after opening!

The Sumida Aquarium here is the second largest aquarium in Japan that occupies the western side of the 5th and 6th floors of Tokyo Solamachi.  It will have over 400 different species.  The largest tank recreates the sea around the Ogasawara Islands, a World Natural Heritage site, and includes rare species such as the wrought iron butterfly fish and the green sea turtle. About 10,000 different creatures are at the aquarium and another attraction is a tank with 1,500 jellyfish.

Narihirabashi Station  on the Tobu Isesaki Line was renamed Tokyo Sky Tree Station in March of 2012.  This is the train station closest to the tower. The section of rail line has also been renamed the Tobu Sky Tree Line. The Tobu Railway Co also operates Tokyo Sky Tree along with the mall and entertainment complex at the base.  Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected per week.

On a side note, I have to say that having the rail companies operate the malls at the train stations and developing the land around the stations has seemed to work out pretty good in Japan.  I loved getting off the train and being in a well developed mall or shopping area rather than just a dingy platform that is found in most cities.  This is the way mass transit should be.  I'm not the only one who seems to think this and I believe the train companies in Japan have the right "magic formula."

Other Tokyo Anime / Otaku Highlights Worth Visiting

Friday, June 1, 2012

Japan's Real Giant Mechas

One of these robots, the Vaudeville, is more recent than the other.  Only the hobby enthusiasts in Japan have actually materialized any giant robot that is driveable.  Landwalker was the original mecha that could actually be piloted and it looks like some robot enthusiasts have combined XBOX 360 Kinect technology to actually create a remotely controlled giant mecha - one that can also be piloted in a cockpit.

All very cool - wish there was a robot show you could go to and actually see both in action.  Vaudeville from Suidobashi Heavy Industry is supposed to be a kit you can buy once they perfect it so you can do your own robot show to impress your friends and the neighbours.  Better get a two car garage though.

Land Walker

"The Land Walker is a one-man, two-legged supposed walker transport, 3.40 metres in height. Made with the assistance of P.A. Technology, the walker is copyright of the Sakakibara Kikai Co. and Ltd.
The vehicle's design features a cockpit, two legs, and two air cannons (each firing large rubber balls which ironically cost more than bullets). The legs end in feet containing wheels that help push the walker forward. The walker's usual speed is approximately 1.5 km/h. It does not actually walk, however, instead shuffling on wheels hidden under its "feet." This means it is not technically a walker; it merely has the appearance of one." From Wikipedia.

Landwalker Front  Flickr / naoK
Landwalker Side  Flickr / naoK

This is a big heavy robot that is 4 metres high, and weighs 4,500 kgs.  It was supposed to be completed near the end of 2011 originally, but technological innovation doesn't work on a schedule.  The video below was shot in April 2012 showing it under development, but it looks good.  It is meant to be controlled remotely or by a pilot occupant.  Their web page has some pics here  It look like it is a wheeled robot on 4 crab-like legs. but it's most interesting things are the control schemes which are by using Kinect to sense the motions of the pilot.  Turn your head to turn the mech and such.

UPDATE:  At Wonderfest 2012 they demoed the Kuratas and posted more info.

These real world mechas were built by real dreamers and I salute them! I was inspired by these mechs along with a lifetime of reading science fiction, watching anime (especially mecha anime), and playing video games to do a little writing of my own in the genre.  I created the world of Exocrisis Blue, where the Earth has been invaded by the Blue Newts and mankind strikes back with reverse engineered technology in the form of a type of mecha called HARM. You can visit my author's site for more information here.