Sunday, February 18, 2018

Giri choko, Valentine's Day and White Day in Japan

Valentine's Day came and went. Depending on where you live, you probably gave and got something sweet and chocolatey from your significant other, friend, family member, classmate, or whoever else.
Except if you happen to be a woman in Japan.

You see, Valentine's Day in Japan is an interesting animal. It's not a lovers' holiday (though it's sloooowly evolving into something similar to it, just give it a couple more decades).
Traditionally, it's a day when women give chocolate to men to say "thanks for being a man."

 Sweets for the soccer fan in your life

Nowhere is it more striking than at a typical Japanese company. On February 14th female co-workers come to the office with packs of chocolates to gift to their male colleagues.
Because I work with a horde of men, and because my workplace is a fairly traditional one, I joined the tradition. This year I prepared 30 packets of "giri choko" to give to the men at the office.

Chocolate for the chess fan in your life. I hate the fact that it's all milk, milk, milk and milk. Disgusting.

Wait, what's this "giri choko" thing?

In English - literally obligation chocolate. Chocolate you give, because you should (or you must), not because you have romantic feelings for someone. Chocolate you give out of... well... obligation. Because it would be bad manners not to.

I didn't want to be known as the gaijin with no manners, so like a good little office lady, I did my Valentine's Day duty. But at least I tried to do it my way. Which in this household, it means either "cats" or "Star Wars". Went with the Star Wars way.

 Of course, featuring Kylo Ren! #Reylo forevah!!!

Made 30 of these little baggies.

That way the men knew exactly who gave it to them, and hopefully will remember me next month (more about it in a sec).

I kept the cats for myself.

Sadly, they were not that good.

In all fairness, women also give chocolates to other women on Valentine's Day in Japan. And some of the more progressive men do bring sweets for the office ladies, as well.

That's why you can see more feminine selections on Valentine's Day, too.

Children get in on the fun, too. There are plenty of kids' friendly options to choose from. I mean, just look how cute these Gudetamas are!

Or perhaps, Kitty-chan for that special friend in your class?

Bestie is a Sumiko Gurashi fan? No problem!

Whatever your little ones like, you can find it pretty easily. My experience was that usually kids give sweets to everyone, because it's not good if someone gets left out.

In fact, some schools and companies actually encourage equal opportunity chocolate giving on February 14th, saying that either everyone should get something, or no one at all. Some workplaces go even as far as banning White Day completely.

Wait, what's this White Day thing?

On Valentine's Day the more conscientious males try to keep track of the women who gave them sweets. Good manners dictate that on March 14th the men should reciprocate and gift something back. March 14th is a uniquely Japanese occasion known as White Day. "White Day" because of white chocolate, get it? (Fuck that, I HATE white chocolate!)

These are cute, but I don't want them. Milk chocolate is vile. White chocolate is even worse.

White Day was invented purely as a marketing ploy to sell more chocolate. But, as a typical reciprocal rate hovers at around 20%, despite the best advertising efforts, the popularity of White Day is waning. When seven years ago I made a comment that White Day was losing ground in Japan, I was ridiculed by self-proclaimed Japanese Cultural Experts (JCE for short) for my apparent ignorance and lack of cultural knowledge. The changes were subtle back then and easily missed by casual observers.

This year the changes are more apparent. At local shops White Day displays are about half or 1/3 the size of Valentine's Day displays. The selections are slimmer and not as attractive as even a few years ago. Yes, it's still a long time until March 14th, but when I asked the staff at a few local shopping centers, they said there were no plans to make the selections larger, or the displays more flashy.

Part of the reason is that mothers and wives of those male office workers (what? you actually thought that guys buy stuff for their female co-workers personally? LOL, you're so naive) choose different types of gifts to give to the office ladies. Women know women. Women know that not every woman will eat cookies, or chocolate, because staying thin is always in style. Instead, items like flavored coffee, fancy hand creams, cute hand towels and bath bombs are popular. Lush and Body Shop do brisk business before White Day. As does Starbucks.

I'm very picky about my chocolate, too picky some may say. Because of that I prefer non-sweets White Day gifts. I'm not a fan of Lush, but if I had to choose between milk chocolate and a bath bomb, I'd go with the bomb 100%. Or some yummy dates.

Unfortunately, not all men remember, or care, who gave them "giri choko" on Valentine's Day. In fact, I'd say, most don't. The usual rate of "obligation" White Day gifts is around 20%.

This year, to the surprise of most people, Godiva had spoken against obligation chocolate by placing a full page ad in the February 1st edition of Nikkei Shimbun. In it, Godiva Japan's president, Jerome Chouchan blabbed about:

"Of course, it's good to give chocolates to the person you really love, but there's no need for obligation chocolates. In fact, in this modern era, it's better not to have them. [...] Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day when you confess your true feelings. It’s not a day on which you’re supposed to go out of your way to keep good relations at work."

Really? What does he care? Godiva, shit as it is, is too expensive to be given as obligation chocolate. I guess he was mad that other (read: cheaper) companies are doing brisk business, but Godiva is not. Well, sorry sweetie, but take a wad of chocolate and shove it up your ass. You're just salty that you're not getting a piece of the "giri choko" action. Not only is your chocolate utter garbage, the only reason why it's considered "luxurious" is because of its ridiculous price.

The reaction to the ad was mixed. Some were agreeing, some were not. Some just straight up laughed about it. Most thought it was "stealth marketing", precisely for the reasons I mentioned above - Godiva not moving enough chocolate before Valentine's Day. It just shows how out of touch with reality the Japanese branch of this company is.

One Japanese chocolate company, Yuraku Confectionery, which has a line of cheap chocolate with a very porny name - Black Thunder - shot back at Godiva.

Black Thunder is super cheap, and by all accounts, decent chocolate. In other words, perfect "giri choko", and Yuraku Confectionery are proud of it. They know what they are making and they embrace that part of the market. Their message to Godiva was "shut up and shove it" but said in a nice and polite Japanese way.

And yeah, I agree. To each its own.

I did my part.

Now, let's hope I am going to get something decent on March 14th.

PS. Yeah, I did get something on Valentine' Day. This massive pack of strawberry flavored confectionery. I shared the white stuff with my friends, and ate the rest. It was delicious.

Audrey seems to be a Yokohama-based company. I absolutely adore their designs!!!

PS2. Some Japanese women and girls "make" Valentine's Day chocolate. Meaning, they buy a chocolate block, melt it and pour it into form moulds. What is the point of this exercise? I really have no idea. Especially since newspaper articles claim that men prefer store bought sweets!

Cookie forms to pour your "homemade" chocolate in.

And boxes to package your "homemade" gifts. 

Meh, not for me such pointless activities. I mean, any idiot can melt a block of chocolate. Nothing to brag about here. Japanese women are strange...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Visiting Planet Scarif - part 1

I am a huge Star Wars fan, that much is true. I carry my computer to work in a Star Wars bag. I drink my tea out of a Star Wars cup. Even my cat has her own Star Wars dish.

To be honest, I was never that much into Star Wars Rogue One. Yeah, it was an OK movie, but just OK. It seemed very paint by numbers to me.

Noooo... I'm not a Rogue One fan... This mousepad just casually fell into my lap after the premiere screening. Actually, two of them, to be exact.


When I realized that visiting planet Scarif was very much possible, I was on expedia booking my tickets faster than Luke could draw his lightsaber. So much for not being a Rogue One fan. Ha!

And when I realized that I could stay at the same place that the filming crew did? Yeah, I was all packed and ready to go.

Instead of an interstellar transport vessel, I took a bus to Haneda Airport in Tokyo and got on a flight to Dubai. In Dubai I transferred to a flight to Male'. This stupidly named city (yes, with that dangling apostrophe at the end) is the capital of Maldives. Because Maldives is where planet Scarif is at.

At Velana International Airport in Male' I switched from my swanky Emirates ride (free upgrade to business class, ha!) to a domestic flight to a place named Kadhdhoo. Seriously. Kadhdhoo.

This lovely Star-Warish-sounding island is located in Laamu Atoll in Maldives. Because it is in Laamu Atoll where you can find planet Scarif.

Laamu Atoll in Maldives - the location of planet Scarif

The biggest island in Laamu is called Gan. It's connected to Kadhdhoo by a proper paved causeway with street lights and all, built by China as a token of Chinese love and affection for the crystal clear waters of the Maldivian Indian Ocean. Or something like that.

Confusingly, there are three different Maldivian islands called Gan, and in my excitement I almost booked a flight to the wrong one. Fortunately, my guesthouse on the proper Gan sorted the domestic transfers for me and thus spared me a major embarrassment. What can I say? Geography of small island countries was never my strong point.

This is Laamu Atoll with the three shooting locations marked in red for your convenience.

I stayed at Reveries Diving Village and I picked this guesthouse after debating long and hard. Previously I had a different guesthouse in mind, but Reveries won me over with their professionalism and courtesy. And honesty.

How did we live before GoPro?

The other guesthouse, even though they promote and advertise their Star Wars tours very aggressively was less than forthcoming when it came to answering basic questions. Such as "Are there TVs in the rooms?" and "Do you have a diving instructor on staff?" The answers they didn't want to give me were "no" and "no".

Reveries had both. And a giant outdoor screen in the garden, so one night we could eat our dinner outside and enjoy Rogue One under the stars.

Reveries also had one more thing that other guesthouses on Gan didn't. Staff members that actually worked as support on Rogue One.
Their gym was turned into a makeup room during the shooting. Their manager of operations ferried filming crew back and forth between Gan and the shooting locations. And while the stars of the film were accommodated on a luxurious safari boat, the rest of the crew stayed on Gan.

So when these guys greet you at the front desk, you know you are at the right place.

Regardless of what other news and fan outlets say, planet Scarif is actually three different islands in the Laamu Atoll. And regardless of what other news and fan outlets say, Gan is not one of them.
These islands are:
  • Baresdhoo (misspelled as Berasdhoo on Google maps)
  • Holhurahaa (known locally simply as "Huraa", not to be confused with several other islands with the same name), and
  • Kuda Fushi.

Baresdhoo and the island known as Huraa are close enough to Gan that they can be visited in one day. Kuda Fushi is all the way across the atoll.

It takes about 15 minutes from Gan to Baresdhoo by motorboat.

Baresdhoo is a public island, nobody's living there right now. But that will change very soon, as the government has a very ambitious project to turn it into a guesthouse island.
Maldives is known as one of the most expensive travel destinations in the world. Say "Maldives" and people immediately imagine water villas with glass floors and private resorts. And yes, Maldives is all that, and more.

However, in 2009 the government allowed for private citizens to open budget guesthouses on inhabited islands, and the hoi-polloi, like me, could finally travel to paradise as cheaply as possible.
Staying in a guesthouse on an inhabited island (as opposed to a resort on a private island) has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that it's cheap. Plus you get to see how average Maldivians live. The main disadvantage is that there is absolutely no alcohol allowed. Sharia law and all that.

So yes... the first guesthouses on Baresdhoo are scheduled to open in 2020. There's also a very ambitious plan to extend the causeway to Baresdhoo, but that all depends on our friendly Chinese road builders and how much they value the everlasting Maldivian friendship.

That means that in 2020 visiting one part of planet Scarif will become very, very easy.

As it is right now, you have to go by boat.

And what was filmed on Baresdhoo?

And this is what it looks like in real life now:

It's the same path:

There were no rebels when we visited. Just an older couple from a nearby island who were collecting coconuts. How anti-climactic.

There are actually two different shooting locations on Baresdhoo. To get to the other one you have to take about a ten minute walk along the beach:

And who doesn't love a lovely beach, right? Right???

The second location is where one of the imperial installations was located:

Sorry, I'm too lazy to search for a proper still from the movie right now. I'll try to add it later.

And that's it for Baresdhoo. It was time to trek back to the boat.

Apparently, visiting the next island during low tide was very important. Soon you'll understand why.

The next island is officially known as Holhurahaa, and unofficially as "Huraa". It's very confusing, because nearly every Maldivian atoll has an island named "Huraa", or some variation thereof. One of these Huraas is a popular guesthouse island famous for great diving. But that's not our "Huraa".

We wanted this "Huraa". No guesthouses and no people there at all:

It takes about 30 minutes by boat from Baresdhoo and the seas can get quite choppy as you have to cross two channels linking the inside of the atoll with the open ocean.

Because we reached this island during low tide, getting to the shore involved a long hike through the lagoon.

What was filmed on this speck of sand?

And this is how it looks a few years later during low tide and from a different angle:

The ocean and the erosion almost ate up the remains of the tree. Next year it will be all gone.

But for now, we can still enjoy the view of a famous dead tree stump in the middle of nowhere.

And that's it for Holhurahaa.

It was back to the boat and off to a picnic on a deserted island. We caught some lunch on the way.

And this concludes part 1 of our visit to planet Scarif.
In part 2 we'll go to Kuda Fushi. That's where all the REAL action was.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Disappointed with Star Wars The Last Jedi

It's this time of the year again. A new Star Wars movie was released last weekend and of course I was at the multiplex to see it.
Not on the opening night, mind you. From what I read about this sequel, I had a feeling it wasn't going to be worth the trouble of taking off from work early and schlepping all the way to the other side of town in pre-Christmas mall traffic. Yes, it's Christmas shopping season in Japan, too. What did you think?

Instead of Friday night, we went on Sunday after lunch (Korean food at the mall is not all that bad, it turns out).

In case you are curious about how much movie tickets cost in Japan, here's your answer - 1 800 yen per person on a normal day. Sunday was a normal day.

The theater was packed. And by "packed" I mean, every single seat was occupied, including the really shitty ones on both sides. We were lucky, I pre-ordered on the internet and we got the center right behind the disabled section. I could stretch my legs. My knee is killing me. I should really get it looked at by a sports doctor, or something.

Anyway... About Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

I didn't like it.

You see, I'm an old-timer. I grew up on the original trilogy. The first time I ever went to the movies as a child was to see Episode IV. Yep, that's how old I am. I remember crying when Luke was hanging on for dear life in The Empire Strikes Back. I cringed at the Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi. I thought Han Solo was the coolest dude in the whole universe. The princess was an ass-kicking fighter, donut hair and all. Darth Vader was the ultimate, THE ULTIMATE bad guy. And Luke? ... He was Luke. Skywalker, damn it!

The prequels were such pieces of utter shite that I quite successfully managed to erase them from both short and long term memory.

And then came The Force Awakens, and the side story of Rogue One.
And then... the long awaited The Last Jedi.

Of course we all know that the title is a lie. There will be more Jedi, more films, more movie tickets to sell, more dollars to be made. We're not that naive.

Stupid title notwithstanding, the whole movie was just that. Stupid.

Instead of Star Wars we get "Beauty and the Beast" in space.  It's classic Disney. The bad guy falls for the good girl. Some nonsense about blue milk. Instead of Ewoks or Jar Jar, we get Porgs. Leia floating through space and somehow managing to stay alive. And a bunch of other nonsensical stuff that served no other purpose, except to make the movie suitably long. 

So, was there anything good about the movie?

Kylo and his girlfriend fighting. On the same side.

And I bought another Star Wars cup to add to my collection. Made in Japan, exclusively for the Japanese market.

It joins the previous cup from The Force Awakens.

So, that is another reason why I will see Episode IX when it is released - to complete my cup collection.

I didn't bother with any other official merchandise.

I will not be re-watching The Last Jedi. For 1 800 yen I can get 3 (three) soy dark mocha chip frappuccinos. And this time, the frappuccinos win.

In other news, I'll be spending my winter break on planet Scarif. And I'm not even a big Rogue One fan. Though in all fairness, even sans Luke it was still infinitely better than The Last Jedi.

PS. Yes, it's time to resuscitate this blog.

Stay tuned...

Monday, February 15, 2016

Owl Cafe Ikefukuro

Yes, an owl cafe. Because cat cafes are so last decade.

Let's make a few things absolutely clear.

1. I'm not a Harry Potter fan. The books put me to sleep so effectively that I nearly drowned in the bathtub when reading one while having a soak. The movies I found so incredibly boring that I actually took a nap in the movie theater. And then again at home when we tried watching another installment on DVD.

I didn't even know that Harry Potter had a pet owl, or somesuch. I only found out last weekend.

And if I hadn't visited Ikefukuro, I'd still be living in blissful ignorance.

2. I don't like zoos. I don't like petting zoos either. And I think that circuses that use animals should be closed immediately and their owners taken out back and put in the cages. And made to do tricks for the amusement of the masses.

3. I am not a vegetarian, but in my own hypocritical way I love animals. I believe that all animals deserve to live comfortably and be treated with dignity and respect.

4. Only domesticated animals should be kept as pets.

5. Owls are bloody damn cute.

So now that you know where I stand, you may be wondering what the hell was I doing at the owl cafe in Ikebukuro last Saturday?

And to be honest, I am wondering the exact same thing right now.

I guess I had to satisfy my morbid curiosity and make sure I'd be sufficiently depressed for weeks afterwards.

The name of the cafe, which by the way is not a cafe at all but a petting zoo in disguise, is Ikefukuro.
It's located in Ikebukuro in Tokyo. And "fukurou" means "owl" in Japanese.
So, Ike + fukuro? Get it?

The place is about a 10 minute walk from the station. You gather, every hour on the hour, in front of this Lawson:

Next to this sign:

You make your booking on the internet (via email) and once your reservation is confirmed, you get the details of this designated pickup place.

Bookings are done in hourly slots. One hour on a weekday costs 1400 yen. One hour on a weekend or a public holiday will set you back 1600 yen. The price includes 1 bottled drink. This place is a "cafe" only in the name. There is no food or drink service.

Payments are cash only and are collected half way through your hourly slot. If you post something on social media using this hashtag #ikefukurocafe, you are eligible for a 100 yen discount.

You can get all the relevant info on the cafe's website - Ikefukuro Owl Cafe in Ikebukuro.

So anyway, you are waiting by the sign, and when it's time, a staffer appears with a booking list, calls out the names and leads you to the tiniest elevator ever. Seriously, this elevator is big enough for 4 skinny people packed very tightly together, or one oversized guest.

And then it's just playtime for you and the owls, and for everybody else who booked the same time slot.

There are big owls there:

And small owls:

Yes, poop happens, be prepared. Wet wipes are available for your convenience, but consider yourself warned. And it seems that the smaller the owl, the bigger the poop.

And now let me get depressed for a long, sad while...

I understand these are not wild animals. I understand they were bred in captivity and would die from starvation if they were released into the wilderness.

I understand they were meant to be pets. And they are treated as pets. In a petting zoo. Because, let's not kid ourselves, this is exactly what this place is.

A petting zoo full of captive birds of prey.

Owls are not easy pets to handle. They need lots of space. They need to stretch their wings and get sufficient exercise to stay healthy and happy.

Owl pet experts say that an owl needs enough space to flap its wings at least 5 times when flying around. Otherwise there is a very high risk of developing chest infections. Owls that don't have sufficient exercise get depressed and develop a multitude of health problems.

I have tried to ask one of the staffers if these owls get a chance to fly around and act like birds once in a while. She looked at me like she didn't quite understand my question, but answered "yes" anyway, just in case.

I looked on their website to see if there is any information about what these owls do and where they are kept when they are not working. Unsurprisingly, there isn't any.

If these poor owls spend their entire time in that tiny "cafe", I feel so sad and so sorry for them. If it was me, I'd rather chew my leg off and bleed to death than live like that.

Yes, they are bloody damn cute.

But it was still a heartbreaking experience.

The petting zoo, pardon me, the cafe, also sells owl related merchandise. I didn't buy any, and now I am glad that I didn't. I might be a hypocrite (because even captive owls are cute), but I'm not a total idiot.

I asked if they had this for sale:

Luckily they didn't. Phew! Otherwise, I'm sure I would have gotten one.

To sum it up, would I recommend going there?
If your conscience can handle it, then yes, by all means - visit.

The staffers looked well trained in handling the owls and clearly cared about the birds very much,

The birds were pretty tame and very well behaved (apart from an occasional shit here and there).

And did I mention they were also bloody damn cute as well?

Here you can see where the cafe is located:

Hint - it's the green sign in the window.

Now... in more pressing news...
I'm out of Lindt balls. How did that happen????