Music Review - Shiina Ringo Reimports ~Port Authority~ / 椎名林檎 逆輸入 〜港湾局〜

For today's post, it's time for my first music review on Rising Sun, and I can't think of an album that's more deserving than this one by singer-songwriter Shiina Ringo. I've been fan of hers since the early 2000s, and one of the main things I enjoy about her music is how she continuously seeks to reinvent herself by exploring new styles of music and blending them in unique and ingenious ways. Additionally, she's fully able to perform any genre of music that interests her, and listeners are guaranteed that she'll perform it with intensity and feeling. When these fine musical elements are brought together with the expert studio remastering that's standard for a Shiina Ringo release, the end result is beautifully polished without losing its soul or sounding pretentious. Without further ado, I present:

椎名林檎  逆輸入 〜港湾局〜
Shiina Ringo  Reimports ~Port Authority~

Shiina Ringo released her latest full length album, "Reimports ~Port Authority~" last month on May 27th. The images in this post show the limited edition hardcover-book version. This album is a compilation of self-covers, meaning that all the tracks she's performing are songs that she wrote for other artists, some of which date back to the late 90s, not long after her debut. Much like her other recent releases, this album is another genre-busting collection of works that challenges the boundaries of musical classification and showcases Ringo-chan's wide-ranging talent. The fact that the songs were first made famous by other singers makes it all the more interesting to hear Shiina sing them herself. It's also worth noting that the album is an even mix of Japanese and English songs, which might increase accessibility for overseas listeners.

1. 主演の女 ("Shuen no Onna" / Leading Lady, written for Puffy)
The opening track of Reverse Import ~Port Authority~ is an exploration of the soundtrack / show tune genre that Shiina Ringo has been frequently exploring recently. Combining a driving bass line with a big band swing musical sound, both in orchestration and vocals, is something really unique, and a sound that I personally have heard only on Shiina Ringo's albums.

2. 渦中の男 ("Kachū no Otoko" / Vortex Boy, written for Tokio)
Shiina's vocals on this track move into a sort of 90s trip-hop direction, which magically compliment the extremely intense if not chaotic and slightly discombobulating instrumentation which can sort of be described as a conglomeration of high-tempo classic jungle, dubstep and techno hardcore. I'm not sure I've ever actually heard a track like this before...one that I liked anyway. It demanded my full attention and left me in shock momentarily!

3. プライベイト (Private, written for Ryōko Hirosue)
In huge contrast to the previous track, "Private" brings us to a very playful, happy, pop sound. Even the lyrics are extremely lighthearted and j-pop-like to the point where I had to wonder if she was just toying with us, but then I needed to remind myself that this track was written with a different singer in mind. Indeed this is quite fitting for Ryōko Hirosue. (^_^)

4. 青春の瞬き ("Seishun no Matataki" / The Flicker of Youth, written for Chiaki Kuriyama [Side Note: Remember Gogo from Kill Bill? Yep, that Chiaki Kuriyama])
Shiina's vocals on this tune give listeners a nostalgic feeling of listening to early, classic Shiina Ringo which...what can I say?... feels good! Listening carefully, though, this track has some unique sounds hidden in the sound of nostalgia. The arrangement on this one is actually multi-layered and multi-faceted!

5. 真夏の脱獄者 ("Manatsu no Datsugokusha" / Midsummer Fugitives, written for SMAP)
This is another track that took me by surprise, especially considering that it was made famous by SMAP! In order to classify this tune, I would have to describe it as electro-funk pop rock! It's definitely funky and makes me feel like dancing! Fans of Shiina Ringo know that those are not words that come up very often listening to her music! Very kool!! Not being a fan of SMAP (Sorry) I think it's many times more enjoyable than their version.

6. 望遠鏡の外の景色 ("Bōenkyō no Soto no Keshiki" / View Outside of the Telescope, written for Eri Fukatsu)
"View Outside of the Telescope" is a unique combination of sounds that brings back elements of the show tune / musical soundtrack style I mentioned earlier, along with the sounds of traditional cool jazz as it would be if performed by a big band. This track is an instrumental which something quite unusual for Shiina Ringo, and it's pretty darned impressive!

7. 決定的三分間 ("Ketteiteki Sanpunkan" / The Decisive Three Minutes, written for Chiaki Kuriyama)
This is another track that has a sort of nostalgic feeling in the vocals, but the arrangement is decidedly anchored in the spy movie soundtrack, bringing in subtle element of mysteriousness.

8. カプチーノ (Cappuccino, written for Rie Tomosaka)
Bringing the listener back to the realm of pop,  this track seems straightforward enough, but Shiina's interest in the soundtrack is evident here as well adding a subtle richness to a lovely pop-rock tune.

9. 雨傘 ("Amagasa" / Rain Umbrella, written for Tokio)
When listening to "Rain Umbrella" I can't stop myself from hearing a tiny bit of modern American country in Shiina's singing style and intonations (not something I would have predicted myself ever saying). Any similarity to country ends there, though, since the music in this tune dances on the borders of both hard rock and punk without fully crossing over into either one! Leave it to Shiina Ringo to make a song like this one work and sound great!

10. 日和姫 ("Hiyori Hime" / Weather Princess, written for Puffy)
The sound of hard rock continues on in this track while preserving the feeling of a light and playful pop-rock-alternative tune... perfect for Puffy I think! (^_^)

11. 幸先坂 ("Saisakizaka" / Fortune Hill Road, written for Yōko Maki)
Something unique again! The musical arrangement is best described as provincial, and could easily be mistaken for something from the French countryside. The sound of scratched vinyl is blended in periodically, giving the feeling of listening to an old record. This is really quite a delightful way to end a great album!

Reimports ~Port Authority~ is another masterpiece, album added to Shiina Ringo's already impressive catalog of releases. My feeling is that even if you are not (yet?) fans of hers, you will enjoy it so long as you simply like music. This is an album that really has a lot to offer regardless of one's personal tastes.

On that note♫ I'd like to end this post by first linking to Shiina Ringo's official Youtube channel, and second by leaving you with yet another new Shiina Ringo track that's not on the album I've just reviewed, but was released even more recently as the official soundtrack for Japan's coverage of the 2014 World Cup, a tune that's aptly named, "NIPPON." Enjoy! (Now if only our team would pick up the pace and make themselves worthy of this song!)


Hakusan Shrine Hydrangea Festival / 白山神社紫陽花祭り

Spring is coming to an end in Tokyo, and besides the heat, what comes along with the end of spring? Beautiful Hydrangea of course! Known as "Ajisai" (紫陽花) in Japanese, I went to see a whole bunch of different varieties of them on display yesterday at the 30th annual Ajisai Festival (紫陽花祭り) at Hakusan Shrine (白山神社) in Bunkyo City sort of nearby my home. Each year festival organizers setup a shared space adjoining the grounds of the Shrine with Hakusan Park to display nearly 3,000 hydrangea. Although the festival proper has been held annually for the past 30 years, Hakusan Park has been open to the public since 1891 (明治24年), and Hakusan Shrine dates back to the mid-900s in the Heian Period (平安時代). For today's post I'm ending with a simple introduction. Please enjoy the photos below!


Homelessness in Tokyo

Disclaimer for anyone who may stumble across this post: this content is not based on any actual knowledge about homelessness or experience working / participating in social services; this is just me meandering as usual.

I hope I'm not being offensive to anyone, but this guy is my favourite homeless person in Ueno. I see him several times per week since I usually ride through Ueno Park during my commute to and from work. He's always doing something interesting, he's got an really kool bicycle and is often wearing something ostentatious. In this photo he's performing some sort of ritualistic dance with a discarded potato chip bag. Earlier this week I saw him chanting something while furiously ripping weeds and grass out of the ground and throwing them to and fro, stopping periodically to point at passersby while striking pseudo martial arts poses. The poor guy is probably in need of mental health care, but sadly he's not likely to get it in our society over here. I like this guy! Can I say that? I thought about asking his permission to take a photo, but I'm reluctant to do that because I'm not sure he would welcome it, and his actions often border on the frantic and agitated.

Homelessness in Tokyo is really a mystery to me because it's so very different from what I'm accustomed to in the U.S. There was really no such thing as homelessness until after the bubble economy broke in the 1990s and unemployment became widespread. Recent Japan Census estimates say that there are probably at least 5,000 homeless people living in Tokyo. Many of Tokyo's homeless live seemingly undisturbed in make-shift camps in out-of-the-way corners of public parks, and I've seen many, many homeless folks start their day by waking up early and sweeping and/or tidying up the public spaces around them. Taking shelter under other urban shelters like bridges and underground cross-walks does not seem to be discouraged, but obviously I can't know the true situation for sure.

I can't help but wonder how support systems work here. The vast majority of homeless people in Tokyo have wheeled push-carts and blue plastic-vinyl tarps that all look exactly the same, as if they were issued to them from somewhere. I've also observed that local businesses tend to leave their discarded cardboard cartons out for homeless people to use, as opposed to cutting them up and stuffing them into a trash compactor like they do in the states. For some reason I have never once been asked for change or a handout of any kind, nor have I seen people around me being asked, even in areas with a large homeless population.

Here is a BBC page that shows a handful of photos documenting homeless in Osaka, a city that was particularly hard-hit by the economic downturn of two decades ago.

I can't help the feeling that this post is probably making someone somewhere angry or offended. I sincerely hope not, but I also know that these days good intentions carry no value if one's words are seen to be perpetuating stereotypes or oppression, whether the author is aware of it or not. If anyone is actually informed on the topic of homelessness in Tokyo, I'd love some comments!

Side-note: No, I did not see the movie Tokyo Godfathers (東京ゴッドファーザーズ). (^_^)


Salty & Sweet? Say What!?

Maple Bacon Long John
Glazed and Infused, Chicago

Do you like salty and sweet flavours combined? For the vast majority of westerners, the answer is a resounding YES! For this reason many visitors are probably surprised when they learn that this is a relatively strange concept to Japanese people.

In Japan, by and large, sweet goes with sweet and salty goes with salty; no mixing. I didn't think this could truly be the case at first, but daily life As well as talking to some friends and co-workers has led me to conclude that it's very true. One of my colleagues who was an exchange student in the U.S. during college even confirmed, "Oh, you mean like maple syrup and bacon? Yeah, those two do not go together." Gasp! What evil dost thou speak!?

Pancake Café Ohana, Sendagi, Tokyo. YUM!!
I obtained further evidence several different times while patronizing a pancake restaurant nearby my home. It's a "Hawaiian Pancake Café" so one might think, "surely they would understand this great marriage of salty and sweet?" Think again! On the menu is a smaller section for "on the side" items, but they're actually called "toppings" (because...what could you possibly want to order on the side, right? ^_^) One of the offerings is grilled spam since, after all, it's Hawaiian (fantastic, BTW, if you've never tried it). Every time I go to the restaurant I order something delicious like cinnamon-banana or caramel apple pancakes, AND a side-order (a.k.a. "topping") of grilled spam. Now keep in mind that there is also a main dish featuring spam because pancakes in Japan can be prepared either sweet OR salty. My order is not for the main though, just a small dish of grilled spam. Every time I place this order there's a sense of mild confusion in the wait staff's reaction (LOL!) followed by confirmation. "You want to order grilled spam? From the toppings menu?" (opens the menu and points to it...possibly concerned that I can't read Japanese too well) "Yes, please," I say. "Do you want me to bring it along with the other food?" To which I respond, "If you could please, yes." Finally the order is sent to the kitchen but still with a tiny bit of lingering hesitation.

This interaction does not bother or annoy me in the least; if anything it's a little bit amusing. It's a clear illustration, though, of how salty and sweet flavours are for the most part kept separate.

Reese's PB Cups mailed to me
from my good friend in Chicago.
So what are some other foods are caught in the crossfire of the feud between salty and sweet?
  • Those Maple-bacon doughnuts that are so popular overseas
  • Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (much to my dismay)
  • PB & J (and to some extent peanut butter in general, but more on that later)
  • Oatmeal (a couple of folks told me, "I might like it if it was salty instead of sweet.")
  • Bacon-wrapped pineapple
There are surely others, but these were popular in discussion.

Royce Mild Bitter
Chocolate Covered
Potato Chips
For the sake of thoroughness, I need to mention that I've been seeing a subtle, gentle shift toward acceptance. I've noticed, for example, that "ham and pineapple" ("Hawaiian") has been added as a choice on the menu at the famous national pizza delivery chain, Pizza-La. Snack foods like chocolate covered pretzels, honey roasted peanuts, and chocolate dipped potato chips have also fallen to favor recently. The explosive popularity of Chicago's well-known Garrett's Popcorn has also led thousands of Tokyo residents to enjoy the delight of Chicago Mix (caramel corn mixed with cheese corn). Maybe the future is looking up for salty and sweet in Japan after all?

Skippy Peanut Butter
The price is the same
as in the U.S. but the
jar is half the size!
Finally, back to peanut butter. Luckily for visitors and foreign residents alike, peanut butter imported from the US, both smooth and chunky, is available at almost every supermarket. Hopefully you like Skippy, because that's the only game in town (thankfully, it's my favorite). From what I can tell, however, this is primarily seen as a food for children. I don't know anyone else my own age who eats it. One should also note that this product should not be confused with the local product, Peanut Cream (ピーナッツクリーム). Peanut Cream is much softer, thinner consistency and much sweeter flavour, it's not really very similar to peanut butter. For me, both are absolutely delicious so I like to keep some of each around the house!

It would be false to say that it's impossible to get your sweet and salty fix in Japan, but it's far from commonplace. That which you will find is most likely imported from overseas or has its origins there. When all else fails there's always the option of getting in the kitchen and making it ourselves. (^o^)


Biwa / ビワ

Today my wife brought home a package of fresh "Biwa" (ビワ) which I had never seen or heard of before. Wikipedia taught me that in English they're called Japanese Loquats. Any of my readers ever had these before!? They're wonderful! To give you a sense of scale, the dish they're sitting on is smaller than your average teacup saucer, so they're aren't very big. The flavor is somewhat delicate-- sort of like a mixture of persimmon and fresh apricot. The skin peels over very easily and they flesh is extremely juicy with a texture that's similar to a ripe red or black plum. There are three or four large shiny pits inside. These are delicious!! Moar please!


Local Mascots / ゆるキャラ

As Japanese people or anyone who spends a bit of time in Japan knows, Japan loves Mascots! Regional Mascots, Local Mascots, Company Mascots, Team Mascots; anything you can think of, there's probably a mascot for it in Japan!

In Japanese they're called ゆるキャラ ("Yuruchara" / Yuru-kyara) which is a combination of the word "yurui" (緩い) meaning soft or loose association and of course the word "character." Current estimates acknowledge well over 2000 registered yuruchara in Japan, but the actual number is probably much higher than this. Here, mascots are important enough that there's even an official election annually for nation's regional mascots and a general yuruchara ranking!

Yuruchara Grand Prix 2013

Most yuruchara are relatively unknown to the masses and are seen only by people with close ties to the places, products, etc they represent. Take the cover photo from this post for example. These characters are the Bun Rangers (BUNレンジャーズ), mascots for Bunkyō City, Tokyo. Despite having lived in Bunkyō City for over a year, I have never seen them before and only recently became aware of them after coming across their photo while searching for some unrelated info on the internet.

On the other hand, some yuruchara achieve a considerably high level of fame and recognition nationwide and even around the world. Most of my readers are probably familiar with Domo-kun (どーもくん), for example, the mascot for Japan's National Broadcasting Company, NHK. Domo-kun has been popular in America and Europe for a long time, and in 2009 there was even a special run of coffee cups and slurpee tumblers featuring Domo-kun's likeness at 7-11 stores in the U.S. Other mascots like Hikonyan (ひこにゃん), the mascot for Hikone City (彦根市) in Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県), and Kumamon (くまモン) the mascot for Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県), have websites and Facebook pages with a huge following both in Japan and overseas and even have English-language wikipedia pages.

Recently, Japan is literally crazy for Funassyi (ふなっしー / foo na' shee) the UNofficial mascot of Funabashi City (船橋市) in Chiba Prefecture (千葉県). His name is a combination of "Fun" from Funabashi City and Nashi (梨) meaning "Japanese Pear" because Funabashi is a well-known producer of the fruit. The lack of official recognition has not stopped Funassyi from achieving national stardom (perhaps it's actually helped?). Well-known for his hyperactive, almost-insane antics, he regularly appears on TV commercials as well as variety and quiz shows alongside our most well-known and beloved TV personalities. Funassyi themed goods and products have also enjoyed unprecedented sales nationally. Last year Funassyi won 1st place in the 2013 Mascot General Election held in Tokyo.

Which of Japan's yuruchara is your favourite? A good place to get a look at a whole bunch of the more well-known mascots is on the Yuruchara Grand Prix website. http://www2.yurugp.jp/

I can't think of a better way to close this post than with this video of Funassyi. Enjoy!