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Book Review: Japanese Whisky The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Desirable Spirit by Brian Ashcraft

Monday, May 28, 2018 / No Comments

"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time." 13 years after Lost in Translation's release, it seems as though the whole world has caught on and made their relaxing time a Suntory one, or Nikka...or any other Japanese whisky brand in fact, judging by how the industry is making international headlines every month. For the last three to four years, Japanese whisky sales has shot through the roof both domestically and internationally, winning numerous accolades and garnering immense praise from both critics and consumers alike. However, the attention has been a double-edged sword, with newer boys in the business being forced to innovate with non-age statement expressions or to bide their time and hope that the world is still as receptive in a few years. For market leaders Suntory and Nikka, they must be kicking themselves for not having the foresight to predict the success they're having currently, having opted to play it safe when the industry was in a lull. For the former brand, it has had to cease distribution for its popular Hakushuu 12 and Hibiki 17 expressions. On Nikka's end, they've had to do the same for their Yoichi and Miyagikyo lines. And as for myself, I regret not buying a few bottles when I had the chance to while I was travelling..and for finishing my bottle of Yamazaki 12 a little too quickly. Oh well, they say that hindsight is 20/20 after all.

With all the buzz surrounding Japanese whisky recently, I was curious to find out what made their take on the caramel-coloured spirit so appealing to consumers worldwide in recent years, even beating out bigwigs from Scotland and the USA. Enter Brian Ashcraft's Japanese Whisky: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Desirable Spirit. I came across the book while window shopping recently and eventually bought it after my browsing session threatened to become an in-depth reading. The book is split into two parts, with the first one detailing the history of Japanese whisky and what makes the tipple uniquely Japanese. However, I'm willing to bet that the second part is what most people would flip to instead. It details the major players in the market Suntory and Nikka, along with several rising stars and what the future of the industry holds. After the introduction to each brand, there is a set of tasting notes and scoring for a number of their whiskies by Japanese whisky blogger Kawasaki Yuji. These tastings include bottlings that are rare or might not even be available anymore, unless you've a spare arm or leg of course.

Although the pace of the first part is much slower than the second, it's far from dry, serving as a comprehensive guide to the Japanese whisky industry and showcasing how the culture of adaptability and flexibility has been present since its early years after first borrowing techniques from the Scottish. Additionally, Japan's drinking culture was explored, showcasing why whisky faced a decline for a period before its resurgence. Although beer still reigns supreme in Japan's drinking culture today due to its price, availability and how easy it is to pair with food, the guide also noted the places that sake, shochu and whisky had as well. The publication is a guide in every sense of the word, discussing the various steps of the production process and shedding light on native ingredients and materials that are used. Some of these include Japanese barley; which is already used to make beer and mizunara; a Japanese wood that's used to create casks that hold the whisky for aging and is reported to be notoriously difficult to work with.

For those of you who're strapped for time or are craving for a bottle or two already, I'm cutting to the chase, fret not. The highest scoring expressions on Suntory's end are The Yamazaki 1999 The Owner's Cask Mampei Hotel, with a whopping 98/100 and being mainly available at the Mampei Hotel in Karuizawa. Hibiki Deep Harmony comes in second at 97 points out of a possible 100 and like its cousin, is available only in Japan at bars across the country. For Nikka, its The Nikka 40 Years Old and 34 Years Old expressions all received a 98/100 but good luck finding a bottle of any of these. The latter expressions were bottled 19 and 20 years ago and as for the former, it's a limited edition, much like any other Japanese whisky these days actually.

Personally, one man's meat is another man's poison so just take the plunge and snag a bottle from any brand, you might just chance upon a hidden gem. Even Suntory's Kakubin and Nikka's Black Rich Blend hold their own against traditional whiskies that are geared towards mixing such as Johnnie Walker's Red Label or Jack Daniel's. These might even be your go-to whiskies after a long day, especially when paired with their best friends ice and soda water. However, as the industry continues to grow and with brands beginning to enter the fray, expect some duds in the coming years but for me, I'll be shrugging them off as experiments or as growing pains. The book ended up acting as an excellent introduction to the world of Japanese whisky and although several segments were bogged down by the technical aspects of whisky production, it was nonetheless a good read and a nice break from academic text, so cheers to that!

Written by ET

「Dearest Japan」Is the "Boys' Love" genre considered porn?

Thursday, April 19, 2018 / No Comments
One of the perks of having a degree in Japanese Studies is that you are constantly exposed to the weirdness that is Japan, alongside with several eccentric BL-loving accomplices that join you on your daily rambling about gay 2D men... as well as start a new series titled "Dearest Japan", for you to ask all your pressing questions regarding Japan and for me to do some research!
While the most debatable question remains as "why do you even ship men together?" which is most likely targeted at fujoshi who ships every man in a room together to form complicated relationship trees, I am not one of them and neither are the fujoshi I personally know. We love to stay close to our OTPs, thank you very much.

But jokes aside, let's begin with a little background context and some content from academic sources!
The genre for BL is created by women, for women's consumption, and this genre took shape from as early as 1970s in post-war Japan and appeared as a sub-genre in Shoujo manga. As incredible as this sounds now, the works started out rather platonic and lived off the basis of it being a "passionate friendship). 

It was only in the late 1970-80s that sexual content started to be incorporated into the genre. Hence, BL moved  from only encompassing the platonic relationships between two men to a larger scale, where it takes sexual relationships between two men into consideration as well. Around this time, magazines devoted to this particular genre started appearing in the market too.
The term Yaoi was coined in late 1970s and was an acronym for 「山なし、落ちなし、意味なし」suggesting that there was no peak, no fall and no meaning to the genre. Yaoi is, by default, only used to refer to works that primarily focuses on the (explicit) sexual escapades between two men. This holds true even in modern days when we think about all the porn without plot (PWP) fanfiction on the internet.

On the other hand, the term shounen-ai depicts the romantic and loving relationship, typically omitting sexual content. 

Take down notes here so you won't get your terms mixed up when speaking to a fujoshi. Most wouldn't mind but I'm sure you don't want to appear (too) stupid when you call root beer as coca-cola just because they are all grouped under "soft drinks", do you?
So now that you know that the different terms mean, let's move on the most possible reason why BL was even created. And that brings us to the long historical partnership Japan has with homosexuality.

I hope that you know that Edo Japan (1603-1868) had its own fair share of homosexual men and same-sex relationships were celebrated in some ways back then.
These male/male relationships typically consist of a younger beautiful man, wakashu, and an older influential man and the status of the older man is somewhat "elevated" with a wakashu at his disposal while his wife, who is considered a older woman, would be lacking in the looks department in comparison (shaved eyebrows after marriage).
Fast forward to the Taisho period, schoolgirls were enrolled into girl-schools where platonic relationships between an upperclassman and a junior were tolerated and viewed as a passing phase where the junior was "practicing" before graduation when she will then be married and be in a proper heterosexual relationship. They were also expected to stay pure (virgins) until marriage, and women were still oppressed in Japanese society then.

Hence, it is actually concluded by extension that the BL genre came about to help women cope with the stress of being a part of this oppressive society. BL became an empowering tool whereby it gave women an outlet for their sexual urges (porn for women?). Using the male main character, they were able to engage in sexual fantasies without having the guilt that they were sullying their own purity. They were also able to get away from the weaknesses that come with being a female, such as rape.

Thus in a way, BL and especially yaoi was created to be a form of "porn material" for women back in the 1970-80s. In fact, some academic papers actually claim that most early BL works can serve to liberate women and popular works typically feature androgynous main characters (example below) for these women to imagine and empathize with the main character. 

Due to the works being written by women, they also have an added shoujo-manga flair to it which does not encapsulate what gay men and relationships are in real life.

What I personally think is the starting point of BL really strikes me as being made as porn material for women when I look from the perspective of the women as well as the authors of the academic papers I've read through. However, I think that it is also crucial to note that most works nowadays do not usually feature androgynous characters anymore. 
Popular works like Junjou Romantica, Sekaiichi Hatsukoi and 10 Count all have both the seme and uke designed such that we can clearly identify them as male... so perhaps the dynamics of how BL serves as porn for women has changed (because we all know that yes, yaoi still is a thing.)?

So, what do you think? Should BL really be considered porn for women in the past? How about now?

~ Reina-rin

Sakura Matsuri: Garden By the Bay

Tuesday, April 10, 2018 / No Comments
The space of seconds when my feet transverse over the threshold into the Flower Dome premier, my warmth skin became cooler instantly due to the air-conditioner's chilly draft. In dispersion through the batch of both locals and tourists, I marched along with a purpose lickety-split full usage of my short legs. Immediately upon a full view of aesthetically cherry blossom trees accompanied by Japanese landscape stretched out before me on the lower section. The resplendent brilliance of vivid hues, intense babble from ecstatic masses as  sunlight streamed from beyond the dome's glass.

My heart leapt in elation, the ambience gave away a serene sensibility, my anticipatory gaze took pleasure. Without further ado, I pressed on en route to the floral heaven at the same time skidded drunkenly. Literally under my nose, I scooped out my hand-phone to capture the blissful moment with a disparate of snapshots. Enamoured by infinitude of crimson, flush, chartreuse and snuff-coloured. A self proclaimed nature lover; Garden By the Bay exhibited the famous season: hanami viewing.

Gratified, the gaggle of general public never overpowered my ambivert senses, even though all of us had to erratically fluctuate to journey to another station. Patience became a virtue as we cool one's heel for a perfect bearing to clicked away numerous pictures.

The theme and display for this year's cherry blossom festival was exceptionally a heart-stopping experience. Mannequins attired in grandeur kimono in contrast with the variegated environment arranged in perfect poses at different locations. The impression I reacted to or perhaps, a number of us as if we had transported into a portal whereas the puppets remain alive just for us to peeked into their world. My inner Art Wolfe promptly vivified animatedly for "professional" photography session.

Multitude of folks don in vibrant yukata as everyone strutted out and about accompanied by friends, families or individually. It rang a bell about a booth service assigned for yukata rental. Post-haste I wandered off toward the said location after a kind employee instructed me; lo and behold, countless stands available for inspection throughout the time traditional  Japanese folk song render in the backdrop. My peepers agleam in unhidden enthusiasm at the abundance of yukata attainable.

A yukata in maroon-tone incorporated with huge cherry blossoms comparable to my make-up that garnered my focal point and fell head over heels in love. The friendly ladies primp me up as I stood straight with arms poked outward on either side and my dream to don a yukata once and for all came true. After a while, I was all fitted and set for a leisurely breeze within the dome in my pretty attire with some touch up on my makeup. Before I exited from the hall another stall in the centre came into my field of vision.

Katanas mounted on the side wall as well as perched neatly on the table top, customized leather bags, kimono, demon masks and many more items. Unbridled curiosity, I dawdle over to survey the wooden swords when the person-in-charge advances with a generous smile to bestow information. To my amazement; a Singaporean designed the items that was on showcase; a hobbyist and passionate for Japan's subculture. From J rock music, heavy craftsmanship to bold fashion, the dedicated team explore for more kindred whom share the same interest. Applicable classes to produce wooden swords that was up to my alley: Link.

A selection of stands provided Japanese meals, accompanied by a growling belly I flitted from one stall to another until someone called out "cheesecake" to me. The swift change of course, I saw myself at a mini dessert stall coupled with a gleeful expression. After my set purchase; a cup of aromatic coffee alongside Hokkaido Cheesecake and trudged upstairs to a lounge. Long tables similar to a Japanese ramen restaurant as occupants sat on the floor. Sooner or later, with time of the essence I managed to venture off toward the actual party. 

Appreciatively, guests came forth to lent a hand when requested for personal pictures a troublesome peeved if you journey companionless. Nervous as a headless creature, my poorly executed yet awkward poses behind the camera lens in full glory. However, the entire day was consumed under the picturesque blossoms.  

Nevertheless, the casts for the main event aside from mesmerizing flowers were the figurines. People flocked for pictures taken with the dolls at the background or some stood there endlessly for photo-shoot. To be honest, at first glimpse my wariness against puppets reacted internally. Once calm and collected, I basked under the glorious kaleidoscope hand in hand with the serene ambience.

The current writer nestled in my head conjured up oodles of potential plotlines that of which involved the erected figurines.


In spite of the persistent feet ache as mild exhaustion consumed my system, the initial drive to explore overtook my conscious. Recurrently, petals flutter downward whimsically as time for second stood still to admire the scenic surroundings.

In the course of expedition, a gaggle of photographers clamoured for the ivory puppet's attention. Her alluring beauty drove everyone to a feverish mode. Even I became spellbound enough to joined in the fracas and waved my hand-phone in hopes to beat the rest for better view.

Postmeridian, the realization literally whopped me in the face when dejection followed next, the time to traverse home loomed ahead even though my bleeding heart wept in rejection. Despondently, I back tracked to the hall and allowed the sweet lady to stripped away the yukata with my clothes still attached underneath; there was no unrestricted free show to hapless strangers. Once again, the former me returned behind the mirror's reflection and caught the gloom in my eyes. Alas, I sauntered out of the flower dome with a new emotion; solace. In a time to come, my greedy hands yearned to stretched above the blush-tinted sky under a huge cherry blossom tree throughout the time petals would float downward to paint the fir a roseate tone around my lazed body.

Written by, Rugi chan

Tsukiji Wonderland

Monday, January 22, 2018 / No Comments

A fish market is hardly the most glamorous tourist attraction, or location in general. I certainly have not enjoyed any of my experiences in a Singaporean wet market. However, Tokyo's world-famous Tsukiji Market manages to attract hordes of tourists on a daily basis, be it for the freshest sushi and sashimi; prepared almost immediately after being purchased by chefs in the vicinity, or the tuna auction, which is an attraction in itself. Despite visiting Tokyo twice in the past two years, I could not bring myself to either stay up late enough or wake up way before sunrise to visit the market. Fortunately enough, I managed to chance upon Tsukiji Wonderland as it aired on TV several days back and considering how I'm a sucker for anything Japanese, I sat through the entire film. The documentary aims to capture what makes the market so famous and unique, enough so to be called a 'wonderland'.

Tsukiji Market's history discussed at various points throughout the movie, rather than having an entire twenty to fourty minute segment dedicated to it. It's a smart move by the producers as the audience is kept engaged and the various aspects of the market's history are interwoven into the different areas of focus that the documentary captures. Archived footage from the market's early days was shown alongside the construction of the upcoming Toyosu Fish Market, so it puts into perspective how far Tsukiji has come. And for those of you who're planning to visit 'the world's biggest fish market', you might want to do it within the next few months before it makes the move to Toyosu later this Fall.

The documentary moves from interview to interview, be it with a sushi chef who owns a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo or the market's director himself. Every person interviewed relies on the market to make a living and the different points of view makes the film even more interesting. It isn't just spent entirely showcasing the flashy tuna auctions or following chefs shopping for the best catch of the day, but highlights how wholesalers, intermediate wholesalers and even schools are connected to Tsukiji. The market looks chaotic from the outside but it's definitely a well-oiled machine and I wonder how this will translate to the new Toyosu facility. Heck, there is even a team who makes giant blocks of ice for the wholesalers.

Camaraderie is also a key theme in this documentary. The tenants interviewed have been working in the market for years, some since they were children in fact. They were more like close friends and family members rather than business rivals and the documentary was quick to point this out early on, especially via how certain tenants might specialise in tuna and others in prawns, for example. There was no single stall that lorded over the rest, although friendly competition existed come auction time. The sushi chefs interviewed repeatedly praised the market's tenants, highlighting their honesty and work ethic. And those interviewed were no run-of-the-mill chefs either, mind you. Do Jiro Ono and Takashi Saito ring a bell?

Tsukiji Wonderland was an eye-opener in more ways than one and although I didn't visit the market during my time in Tokyo, I might just sacrifice some of my sleep to take a tour of the new Toyosu market when I'm in Japan next Winter. Although the narration included at several points throughout the documentary seemed like an afterthought, it detracted little from the overall experience and I've learned so much more about Tsukiji Market. Maybe I'll even set my alarm a little early this weekend just to take a walk through my own neighbourhood wet market...or not.

Written by ET

Making the Most Out of Tokyo

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 / No Comments

Although I've only been to Japan twice, and with both times being spent entirely in Tokyo at that, I already understand why my friends and family make the trip to the Land of the Rising Sun year after year. Each season has its own charm, from the fireworks and festivals in Summer to the holiday buzz and rainbow-coloured illuminations lighting up the streets in Winter. I've enjoyed both Summer and Fall in Tokyo and I'm currently planning another vacation during Winter next year. I hope the following tips will help you make the most out of your time in Japan's capital, no matter the season.

1. Get lost, no seriously, get lost

Unless you're desperately looking for a specific shop, restaurant or landmark, I highly encourage you to plan your itinerary according to the districts and just walk around the area once you hop off at the appropriate train station. You never know what hidden gems you might unearth and if you're worried about getting lost, I can guarantee that there's an entrance to a train station within five minutes of wherever you are. Personally, I found a dozen izakayas, wine bars and restaurants when I was initially looking for a pub that specialised in craft beer. And yes, I did end up at one of these establishments instead of that craft beer place, although I hope to try out its wide selection some day.

2. Try the arcades...or not

I've waxed lyrical about the arcades in Tokyo in a previous piece so you would've seen this tip coming from a mile away. There's something for everyone in these expansive game centers, be it the addictive UFO Catchers filled with merchandise featuring characters from various anime titles and games to old school bullet hell and fighting games like Street Fighter II. My friends and I threw caution into the wind whenever we entered an arcade, with the UFO Catcher and its tempting goodies robbing us of our precious yen time and again.

3. Get a Pasmo/Suica card

A Pasmo or Suica card will be your best friend throughout the entire duration of your time in Tokyo. It's the Japanese version of our very own Ez-Link card and in case you're wondering, your Pasmo or Suica can be used for much more than just paying for the subway or bus. From a can of coffee at a vending machine to a bowl of ramen at a restaurant, there are an increasing number of merchants accepting the re-loadable cards as an alternate form of payment. The cards will come in handy when you least expect them to, and do you really want to go through the hassle of buying a ticket every time you take the train or bus?

4. Stick with public transport as much as possible

On that note, you'd want to stick with public transport as much as possible, unless you plan to stay out past 12am. Taxis are too expensive and I didn't even bother to open the Uber app to check how much a private hire car would cost. Like I mentioned above, there will be a train station within walking distance from wherever you are, given how many lines there are in Tokyo's subway system. Enter HyperDia. The trip planner a godsend, especially if you can't be bothered to scrutinise the Tokyo Metro map for minutes on end. Just key in your current train station along with your destination and the website or app does the rest, much like Singapore's

5. Cash is best

From what I've experienced, cash is still king in Japan, even in cosmopolitan Tokyo. Forget about relying on your credit card exclusively and head to the money changer with extra cash in hand instead. Additionally, prepare a separate coin pouch because there are six denominations and they'll definitely start piling up before you know it. You wouldn't want to be that guy holding up everyone else in the queue as you attempt to differentiate between a 10 yen coin and a 100 yen coin, right?

6. Have fun!

Perhaps the most cliche and overused tip but it's the one I believe many people forget when they travel. You don't need to tick everything off your itinerary and you definitely don't have to buy unique souvenirs from every district for all your friends and family. Fortunately, there's something for everyone in Tokyo, whether you're a fan of Japanese culture, huge otaku, cafe enthusiast or shopaholic. It's a break from work or school after all so let loose and enjoy!

Written by ET

Arcades in Japan

Tuesday, August 8, 2017 / No Comments

Growing up, I used to spend hours in the arcade at malls across the island. I probably played every game available, and then some. These ran the gamut, from gunning down virtual terrorists to hammering the heads of mischievous plastic crocodiles. It was an easy way for my family to keep me occupied if they needed to shop for long hours. Even if I couldn't play due to the lack of tokens, I could always watch other players going at it. Unfortunately, arcades appear to be dying out in Singapore, with mobile, console and PC gaming being so readily available these days. Even the cavernous Timezone arcade I patronised for a good decade or so was replaced by a tuition centre several years back. Arcades in Japan on the other hand, are thriving, to say the least. Some take up an entire building, with each level having a different set of games or a cafe even, like the red SEGA ones you see in the photo above.

In secondary school, I owned a book that detailed Japanese arcade culture along with the different kinds of games that were available, from fighting games to UFO Catchers. Unfortunately, I wouldn't make my first trip to Japan till I swapped my pink IC for a green one. However, I vividly remembered the contents of that book and even though it has been close to a decade since its publication, little has changed in these bustling game centers. New titles have become even more innovative and old favourites such as Time Crisis have gotten major upgrades. Think two pedals that allow you to face enemies on three different sides instead of a single one.

I even saw machines that wouldn't look out of place in a sci-fi movie, featuring pods that boasted a large curved screen and comfy seats. 
One such pod allowed you pilot a Gundam and duke it out with other players and another recreated iconic dogfights from the Star Wars saga. To say that the experience was immersive would be a severe understatement. Watching more experienced players control the virtual Gundam with ease was half the fun. I only lament that I don't understand enough Japanese to fully enjoy the game, but I'll be sure to work on that and hopefully, navigating the menus will be a breeze during my next vacation.

Despite all the newfangled games that dotted the arcade, my friends and I constantly found ourselves returning to the UFO Catcher machines. It was hardly the crane game we knew from when we were kids and winning a prize was far from easy. I only had a small Charmander soft toy to show for the thousands of yen spent during my first trip last November. Fortunately, or otherwise, I managed to walk away with several Mega Jumbo Nesoberis during my recent getaway, after several lessons from my friends and the arcade's staff. The merchandise plays a huge part in attracting people to the UFO Catchers. Everything is authentic, from simple keychains and bath towels to the aforementioned Mega Jumbo Nesoberis and scale figures. Don't be surprised to see someone walking away with a Pikachu toy that's the size of his torso.

Did I also mention that the prizes are seasonal? This means that they'll only be present for several months before being replaced by something else. The prize lineup is constantly changing and that also contributes to why these machines receive a steady stream of players on a daily basis. Trying to collect the Nesoberis of all nine members of Aquors in their school uniform without resorting to resellers or an actual store? Good luck with that! The day I won the Rem Nesoberi in the photo above was also the day that Emilia was introduced. I neither had the skill nor money required, with the Elven mage requiring 200 yen per try instead of the usual 100.

The arcades also had the unusual purpose of acting as pit stops for my friends and I. We were able to beat the heat, or cold, and take a break before resuming shopping or sightseeing. With more than 15 kilometers logged per day, I think we deserved a few of those breaks in the arcade. This was especially true for Akihabara and Ikebukuro, where there were game centers aplenty. I found myself spending much more time in there during my holiday in July, where the mercury soared to more than 30 degrees per day. It didn't help that Love Live! School idol festival ~after school ACTIVITY~ was present at most of the arcades I was in. I already played the mobile game on a regular basis and was eagerly waiting for the chance to check out the arcade version. I'm looking forward to my next visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, which I hope will be sooner rather than later. I might even need an additional suitcase, should my UFO Catcher obsession not die down by then.

Written by ET