Friday, March 31, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Part VIII: Maid Cafes and Akihabara - the otaku town

Nowhere else in Tokyo surprised me as much as Akihabara did. I don't know where to begin... Anyway let me talk about "maid cafe" first.

A very unique type of cafe made a breakthrough in Japan last year. It's called "maid cafe" - a cafe in which young waitresses dressed in French maid costume (see the right photo) serve you as if you were their master.

I wanted to experience this Tokyo (sub-)culture. I knew maid cafes originally came from Akihabara, known as the otaku town as well as the electricity town (see below for more about Akihabara). But there are many maid cafes there (because it is a booming industry). I could only visit one or two. I didn't want to end up in a wrong place. So I did a bit of research on maid cafes via Google, which revealed that the following six are long-running and popular maid cafes (special thanks to Maid Kissa Wiki and Food Drink News, August 2004):

1. Cure Maid Cafe
Opened on 30th March 2001. The oldest maid cafe among those currently in business. Seems the most orthodox in the sense that it focuses on "cafe" rather than "maid". For example, their pot of tea receives a high reputation.

2. Hiyoko-ya
Opened on 10th November 2001. The second oldest in Akihabara. Seems like a maid herself manages the cafe.

3. Cafe Mai:lish
Opened on 19th July 2002. The third oldest maid cafe. Maid costumes here are those designed by Reticule, a famous brand for French maid costume (or so they say). Its official website shows quite nice photos of maids working here, indicating that customers here come to see a particular maid they like.

4. Cos-cha
Opened on 3rd May 2003. Maids are called "angels" here. This cafe is famous for its "events". For example, in winter of 2003, all maids wore school swimsuits (see a life-size doll on the left in the right photo), causing a long queue of 600 customers. Its coffee and bread is said to taste excellent. It also boasts five lunch sets costing around 1000 yen (5 pounds or 8.33 dollars).

5. Pinafore
Opened on 1st October 2003. The closest to Akihabara Railway/Metro Station among all the maid cafes in this area. Maids here wear pink maid costumes while other maid cafes feature black or dark blue. Its official website features diaries written by its maids. It focuses on communication between customers and maids.

6. @home
Opened on 14th August 2004. The first maid cafe that allows customers to play board/card games with maids. Some maids working here release a CD in which they sing. According to Wikipedia (the Japanese version), the company managing this cafe submitted the request for registering "maid cafe" as its trademark. Maid cafe fans from day one hate this cafe because of this.

As you see, some maid cafes go beyond the simple cafe service. Behind this trend lies the fact that customers, or those visiting Akihabara where maid cafes originate, are so-called otaku guys, who are not good at socializing, let alone flirting with girls.

Well, there are so many things to explain about this phenomenon. Let me begin with what otaku is.

Otaku can be translated into geek, nerd, or anorak. But its connotation is quite different from these English terms. Although the term now refers to anyone who is a maniac/freak in some specific thing, it originally means someone who loves manga, anime, video games, and/or "idols" (well, "idols" also need a bit of explanation, but just assume that "idols" are Japanese counterparts of Britney Spears or that kind of young female good-looking celebrities). Otaku guys feel awkward when they talk to "normal" people and, in particular, girls of the same generation. Girls don't like them either because they don't care about their apperance and hygiene. I remember my all-boy highschool classmates were totally divided between "normal" and otaku people.

This forces them to indulge themselves into underground culture, including child porn. On the other hand, they are energetic consumers of manga comic books, anime videos, and video games. Which has definitely contributed to the high quality of these products that are now appreciated worldwide.

Maid cafes are certainly part of this otaku culture. For some reason, otaku guys fancy girls in French maid costume (which I still don't understand). Such girls are featured in porn video games - I learned this from Wikipedia, by the way, as I don't play porn video games because I don't fancy two-dimensional girls. :) Maid cafes are basically a realization (literally) of their fantasies.

Last year, however, Denshaotoko (Train Man), a movie (and its television version) featuring an otaku guy's love story, and a scene of the guy going to a maid cafe, became a bit hit. This somehow made otaku and maid cafes mainstream.


So I visited Cos-cha for lunch. Two waitresses - probably college students of the sweet type, definitely not the sexy type - dressed in indigo-coloured French maid costume were serving the customers. (Photographs are not allowed inside maid cafes.) When I entered the place, they greeted, "Welcome back, master." I knew this, so it didn't surprise me. But when they took orders and poured tap water into glasses, they kneeled down! This amazed me. The lunch itself was mediocre, by the way.

For a cup of coffee afterwards, I also visited Cafe Mai:lish. Here, some customers were girls. Yes, maid cafes are no longer just for otaku people. I hear maid cafes are popping up in other Japanese cities as well. I sat down at the counter. A otaku-looking guy next to me, in a shy way, talked to one of the "maids".

While I was walking around Akihabara, I spotted a few "maid reflexology" shops. Presumably you will be massaged by girls in French maid costume there. In front of Akihabara Station were a couple of girls in French maid costume handing out fliers to pedestrians (see the left photo). I didn't see this when I walked in Akihabara a year and three months ago.

Okay, let me talk about Akihabara now. Some of you may know this, but this area of Tokyo has been known as the electricity town because a large number of shops specializing in electronics products cluster here - large department stores (foreigner-fridenly Laox, my parents' favorite Ishimaru-denki, Sato-musen, and Ono-den) have many branches within a walking distance alongside many small shops.

Things have started to change in the late 1990s, when the success of Windows 95 turned Akihabara into a place to buy PCs. The old guard Akihabara stores were overwhelmed by newly-opened shops specializing in PCs and related products. To my understanding, this was when otaku guys started visiting Akihabara. Before the advent of Windows 95, PCs were associated with the introverted type who loves to play porn video games on his PC. These people tend to like manga and anime as well. In the early 2000s, a few porn shops catering to such men appeared in backstreets.

That was what I knew before visiting Akihabara this time. What shocked me was that such porn shops are now in main streets! Next to a shop selling household electronics goods stands a six-story building in which all the floors are full of porn DVDs. Another is full of porn manga comic books. Yet another full of small plastic dolls of cute girls in bikinis or other kinds of scanty clothing presumably appearing in manga or video games (see the left photo). Some are even life-size and movable(!), costing around 200,000 yen (1000 quid or 1600 bucks) -you already saw these in the photos above.

Not surprisingly, you rarely see women in this area. You no longer take your children to go shopping in Akihabara...

To sum up, things that are supposed to be underground are not underground anymore in Akihabara. I believe nowhere else in the world is like this. It may make you sick - I don't want to go again - but don't miss Akihabara when you visit Tokyo. Otherwise you ignore the sizable part of Japanese culture.

Postscript 1: According to Maid Kissa Wiki, you can enjoy a maid cafe even in Seoul, South Korea, or in Taipei, Taiwan - Amuamu in Seoul and Fatimaid in Taipei.

Postscript 2: These days there are otaku girls as well in Japan. They love porn comic books featuring good-looking gay guys. Instead of Akihabara, their mecca is Otaku Dori or Otome Street in Ikebukuro. I learned this after coming back to London. Next time I visit Tokyo, I must go there. :)

Tokyo 2006 Part VII: Omotesando Hills

Everytime I come back, Tokyo has a newly redeveloped area. Roppongi Hills in April 2003, Shiodome Sio-site in January 2005, and Omotesando Hills this time.

Omotesando has massively changed during the last couple of years. It is now a "super brand street" where top fashion brands - Dior (see the right photo), Louis Vuitton, Prada, and so forth - all open their fancy-looking stores. Omotesando Hills is the latest addition to the area's drastic metamorphosis.

It is basically a low-rise and long shopping mall, designed by Tadao Ando, with rectangularly circulating slopes allowing visitors to see all the shops without using staircases.

Honestly, it wasn't impressive at all, perhaps because Shiseido's massive ad campaign - featuring as many as six Japanese famous and beautiful actresses (see the photo below) - brought a crimson carpet on the central staircases, destroying the whole atmosphere of Omotesando Hills (see the left photo). But the fact that Omotesando Hills allowed Shiseido to mess up the atmosphere tells me that this place is not serious about how visitors feel. All I felt was that this is a place for rich people - only jewellery shops here tend to have intriguing and fancy decors. How disgusting it is.

I prefer the Ssamjikil shopping mall on Insa-dong of Seoul, which has a similar architectural style. (And everytime I tell this to my Japanese friends, they don't believe this...)

From left, Rena Tanaka, Takako Uehara, Yuko Takeuchi, Yukie Nakama, Ryoko Hirosue, and Arisa Mizuki. To be featured in Shiseido's advertisement gives status for Japanese female celebrities (according to my mother).

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Part VI: Yasukuni Shrine

The South Gate of Yasukuni Shrine

As Prime Minister Koizumi keeps officially visiting it at the cost of deteriorating diplomatic relationships with South Korea and, especially, China (see a BBC article on this), Yasukuni Shrine is perhaps even known to those outside the Far East.

The whole problem is the fact that war criminals are enshrined here along with other Japanese war deads. I always thought, "Why don't you just separate war criminals from the Shrine?" I hadn't been there but, as a Japanese citizen, I needed to see what the Yasukuni Shrine is like.

It is a different world from the rest of Tokyo. There are a bunch of cherry blossoms (and some camellia bushes) inside the Shrine. Each tree has a small plastic board indicating that the tree was donated by a certain group of former soldiers who fought the Second World War. There are also a Japanese traditional garden (which claims to be one of the greatest in Japan though it didn't appeal to me at all), an outdoor nou stage (see the photo below), and the controversial Yushukan museum.

An outdoor nou stage with a branch of cherry blossom in full bloom in Yasukuni Shrine

The Yushukan museum introduces to its visitors the origin of the Yasukuni Shrine and the war history of Japan in the modern era. In front of the museum stands statues of a horse (for dead horses in wars), a dog (for dead dogs in wars), and Radha Binod Pal, an Indian judge who claimed at Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals (1946-8) that Japanese war criminals were innocent.

It first emphasizes the fact that worshipping war deads as gods is Japan's long-running tradition of Shinto (Japan's local religion, different from Buddhism). Those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the community they belong to were always worshipped as gods protecting the community in ancient Japan.

Then the exhibition goes on to Japan's modern military history. The Civil War (1868-9, known as Boshin Senso in Japanese), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5, a war with China over the rule of Korea), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5, a war with Russia over the rule of Korea and northeastern China), and the "Greater East Asian War" (1941-5, this is how right-wing Japanese people call the Second World War).

The exhibition room for the Russo-Japanese War is enormously exaggerated. There is a panoramic video screen showing a documentary of the war. It excitedly explains how Japan defeated Russia. It also emphasizes that after each winning battle the Japanese army showed "samurai" spirits to Russian soldiers who surrendered, by helping their lives or by allowing them to carry swords to respect their pride, etc.

For the "Greater East Asian War", the exhibition explains why Japan was "forced to" wage a war against the United States. It says, "The United States wanted a war to break out in order to boost its ailing economy. By blocking its trade with Japan, which heavily depended on imports from the U.S., America forced Japan to seek natural resources in East and Southeast Asia..."

I was curious how this exhibition explained the failure of Japan's war efforts. Here's the museum's explanation: Initially, the Japanese forces seized the upper hand over the U.S. After such a success, the army generals advocated for taking a cautious approach to the subsequent war strategy while the navy admirals insisted on further aggressive campaigns. As a compromise, the Battle of Midway (June 1942) was planned in which the Japanese navy tried to lure the U.S. forces into a trap. But the Japanese navy made a sequence of mistakes in this plot and got defeated completely. The tide then turned against Japan, leading to the unconditional surrender in August 1945.

The last exhibition room in the World War II section is devoted to the whole plan of the Mainland Defense Campaign. The Japanese army generals were really serious about fighting back against the invasion of the Allied Forces into Japan's mainland...

The final four exhibition rooms are full of face photos (about 3,000 in total) of "Yasukuni Gods" (ie. war deads enshrined at Yasukuni). "Bridal dolls" which were offered by bereaved families of unmarried young soldiers are also on display.

Overall, the exhibition gives me an impression as a superficial (and flashy) account of the Japanese modern history. It doesn't show any historical documents and the like as evidence for their interpretation of history. It completely lacks the account of how the Japanese military ruled Taiwan, Korea, China, and other parts of Asia-Pacific region. I cannot believe that all the wars undertaken by Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century were for the sake of Japanese people - they were all initiated by Japan; not a single war was a counter-attack against invading countries. So I didn't feel like worshipping war deads enshrined here because my happiness as a Japanese citizen today doesn't seem owed to their lost lives. I do feel sorry for them losing their lives in wars. But treating them as gods doesn't make sense to me.

To the south of Yasukuni Shrine, located along Chidorigafuchi footpath (famous for its cherry blossom views) is Chidorigafuchi cemetery for War Dead. Buried here are remains of war dead during the Second World War which no one claims. This is where we should pray.


Combined with my visit to Seoul (see this post), I really want to know what happened during the Second World War, what our ancestors did to other Asians. I realized that almost all historians in Japan were trapped in ideology. Left-wing historians believe that Japan was wrong in all aspects, interpreting historical documents only this way. Right-wing people defend the war efforts without learning the history seriously. It's not that we Japanese are lazy to learn the history. We simply have no way of learning the truth due to the laziness of historians. What the fxxk...

As for the Yasukuni Shrine problem, Ichiro Ozawa, a newly elected chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan - I'm writing this on 18th April - argues that enshrining war criminals is wrong because they didn't die in a battle field like other war deads enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine. He makes sense a lot.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Part V: Nihonbashi

Nihonbashi - the name of a bridge and its surrounding area - used to be the center of Japan. When the Tokugawa Shogunate began its more than 250-year rule in 1603, it built the five main roads connecting Tokyo (then called Edo) and different regions of Japan from Nihonbashi. In other words, all the roads in Japan headed towards Nihonbashi. During the early 20th century, Nihonbashi was the major business and financial district - there are still the headquarters of Mitsukoshi department store and the Bank of Japan (Japan's central bank). Even today, the official distance from Tokyo to anywhere in Japan is measured from Nihonbashi.

Despite its historical significance, Nihonbashi keeps a low profile today because of this:

Overshadowing the Nihonbashi bridge is a motorway (Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway) built in 1964, when Tokyo hosted the Olympics. It's probably the ugliest cityscape in the world. Last year Prime Minister Koizumi encouraged the plan to remove the motorway in order to improve the landscape (a news article). Debates are going on about how it is done (and my dad is involved in this debate).

But I realize that the view of the bridge after dark is not that bad:

Of course, it's not beautiful. But this view is probably unique to Nihonbashi. Nowhere around the world you will see this.

Walking to the north from the Nihonbashi Bridge, you will see another spectacle: Mitsui Main Building (the former headquarters of Mitsui business group):

Isn't this marvelous in the sense that a Neoclassical architecture has got a golden kanji (Chinese character) sign that reads from top to bottom (the Japanese and Chinese way of writing a sentence)? It reads Chuou Mitsui Shintaku Ginko (Chuou Mitsui Trust Bank). The building was built by Americans from 1926 to 1929, after the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the whole city of Tokyo in 1923. Traditionally Japanese buildings were built of wood. Everytime there was an earthquake followed by fire disaster, all the buildings were gone. That's why you see few old buildings in Tokyo. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, when Japan began its modernization, many Neoclassical architectures were built of stone. You still see some of them in Nihonbashi and Ginza areas (and in Seoul as well). The Nihonbashi bridge wasn't an exception - it used to be built of wood (and burned down 18 times) and then in 1911 the current form of the stone bridge was constructed.

In this sense, it's understandable that Japanese people at that time thought Western architecture was advanced and a model to follow. Exploring Nihonbashi makes you think of that era in Japan, which was unthinkable to me when my parents often took me as a primary school kid to Nihonbashi in order to shop at the Mitsukoshi department store (and I liked its toy store section).

Tokyo 2006 Part IV: Kamuro eyeglass workshop

Bought a pair of glasses at Kamuro Megane Kobou (Kamuro Eyeglass Workshop) in Ginza. This shop, recommended by my hairstylist Yumiko-san, has got a wide range of stylish eyeglass frames. Each shop attendant is an eyeglass craftsman, so you can also order a tailor-made frame here.

This is the first time to wear a pair of glasses. I had absolutely no idea what kind of eyeglass frame would fit me. A shop attendant suggested several frames. When I tried on one by one, he took a digital photo shot so I could compare at most four faces of mine with different pairs of glasses on a computer screen. This helped me a lot, and about half an hour later I found a pair of glasses I liked. I gave him a prescription obtained from an eye doctor yesterday, and he cut lenses in the workshop next to the shop within the next 15 minutes. How efficient the whole process was. I was impressed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Part III: Shinjuku 5 - Men's shopping area

Shinjuku 5-chome crossing, a block north from Shinjuku 3-chome Station (Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line and Toei Chikatetsu Shinjuku Line), is a must-visit for fashion-conscious men, which no travel guidebook would mention. At the north-east corner stands Marui Men (or spelled OIMEN as O can read "maru" - a Japanese term for a circle), a very rare building in which all floors are devoted to stylish young menswear (recommended brands are Rupert (2nd flr), PPFM (3rd flr), Tornade Mart (3rd flr), A.S.M. (4th flr), and Scoopman (5th flr). (It's unfortunate that only Rupert has its official website. If any of these brands sets up a website and sells their clothes online in English, I believe they will earn a lot of money.) If you think I often wear stylish clothes, it owes this department store a lot.

Located diagonally opposite across the crossing is Isetan Men's, a more up-market department store building in which all floors are dedicated to menswear for stylish grown-ups. In addition, opposite to Marui Men across Yasukuni Street towers the Shinjuku Komori Building, a very low-profile but quite unusually shaped building (see left).

Actually, around this area you will see quite a few stylish young men sporting interesting pieces of clothes. On the other hand, those men in a suit are all dull-looking. It may be because those at the workplace cannot wear stylish clothes because it gives a signal to their boss or clients that they are not serious at work... Or simply because Japanese men don't look good in a suit anyway.

Tokyo 2006 Part II: Japanese banks unfriendly to foreign tourists

After living in London for more than three years, visiting Tokyo is almost like a foreign trip. I begin to understand how foreigners will find Tokyo. Although many things are convenient here, the coverage of that convenience seems limited to Japanese people living in Japan.

You can't use your credit card issued by foreign banks to make a cash advance at ATM machines of Mizuho Bank, one of the world's largest banks. It wasn't because the ATM machines were located in the suburbs of Tokyo. It was in Shibuya, one of the busiest areas in Tokyo. Can you believe this? A bank staff recommended me to use Citibank, which unsurprisingly allowed me to make a cash advance with my Mastercard issued by Natwest Bank in UK.

The situation seems the same for other major Japanese banks. According to, an exception is post office ATMs, which are linked to Citibank. If you visit Tokyo, it may be a good idea to learn where Citibank branches and post offices are in Tokyo.

Tokyo 2006 part I: Pay-as-you-go mobile phones in Japan

The first thing I did in Tokyo was to get a mobile phone. I can use my Vodafone UK handset, but both making and receiving calls will cost more than 1 to 2 pounds per minute. For a two-week stay, it's better to buy a pay-as-you-go mobile here. (And I forgot bringing a battery charger.)

So I did a bit of research on Japanese mobile phone markets. Here's the report.

Pay-as-you-go (called "pre-paid" here) mobile phones are very unpopular in Japan. NTT Docomo, the largest carrier in Japan, stopped accepting new pay-as-you-go contracts on 31st March 2005. It says that the number of pay-as-you-go users has declined since its peak in March 2001 from 21 million to 8 million. AU, the second largest operator, still provides the service though, judging from their uninspiring list of mobile handsets for pay-as-you-go services, it's not really keen on attracting new customers.

Vodafone, which has decided to withdraw from the Japanese market, turns out to be the best in pay-as-you-go services (and maybe that reflects why Vodafone failed in the Japanese market). The call rate is 60 yen per minute (approximately 30 pence or 50 cents) while AU's rate is 100 yen (50 pence or 80 cents) per minute. They just released a new, relatively stylish handset which costs 7140 yen (35 pounds or 51 dollars).

You can top up your mobile phone airtime by purchasing a "prepaid card" (3,000 yen or 5,000 yen) at convenience stores or Vodafone shops or by credit card online. The topped up fee will expire in 60 days. To keep your phone number, you need to top up at least 3,000 yen before 240 days passes. Otherwise, you will lose your number. Once you lose your number, you need to pay about 3,000 yen to reactivate your handset and your number will be different.

You will be required to submit a piece of identification documentation such as a driving license and a passport to purchase a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, which is nothing surprising to UK customers. But this requirement has just been introduced in Japan since scam using pay-as-you-go phones became a social problem last year).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Seoul 2006 - Part IV: Attractions in Seoul

(Continued from Seoul 2006 - Part III: Japan and Korea in the past.)

Donhwamun, the main gate of Changdeokgung Palace
Donhwamun, the main gate of Changdeokgung Palace

The biggest attraction in Seoul is no doubt Korean cuisine - Korean barbecue restaurants are everywhere. But there are other things to do in Seoul as well.

First, Korean palaces. I visited two of them: Changdeokgung Palace (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and Toksugung Palace. It was unfortunate that Biwon or the Secret Garden, the back garden of the Changdeokgung palace, was closed to the public until May.

Buyongji pond, Changdeokgung Palace
Buyongji pond, Changdeokgung Palace - the only part of Biwon garden open to the public when I visited the palace. The view that pine trees grow in the middle of a square pond is (perhaps) rather unusual in Far East.

Toksugung Palace, on the other hand, is quite intriguing in the sense that one building (Jeonggwanheon Hall) is half-Korean and half-Western and that another (Sokchon-jeon) is totally Western (of Greek-Roman style).

Jeonggwanheon Hall, Deoksugung Palace
Jeonggwanheon Hall

Korea meets the West
Sokchon-jeon (on the left) stands right next to a building of Korean tradition in Deoksugung Palace.

Overall, Korean kings used a lot of green colour to paint palace buildings, which I think is distinctive in the Far East region.

A roof edge of Injeongjeon, Changdeokgung Palace
A roof edge of (probably) Injeongjeon, Changdeokgung Palace

A veranda of Daejojeon, Changdeokgung Palace
A veranda of Daejojeon, Changdeokgung Palace

I found it interesting for Seoul to have both Tokyo-like aspects (skyscrapers, billions of showy signboards, etc.) and Kyoto-ish characteristics (preserved old buildings due to the fact that it has been the capital of Korea since long time ago).

Another attraction in Seoul is Insa-dong Street. It has got a distinctive atmosphere created by a black cobblestone street lined with both traditional buildings as well as contemporary low-rise ones such as the Ssamjikil shopping mall (No, don't imagine an American-style shopping mall. It's much, much more stylish than that. A shame I forgot taking photos...). Some shops sell traditional Korean artcrafts while there are small contemporary art galleries as well. Even Starbucks is forced to match the landscape by having the one-and-only Hanguel-lettered "Starbucks" sign.

Starbucks on Insa-dong StreetStarbucks Insa-dong.

Another interesting part of Seoul is Hondae, an area around Hongik University - South Korea's best art university. So hip places - bars, clubs, and interesting shops at one of which I bought a cute alarm clock - abound here. I only managed to visit this part of Seoul after dark for just a couple of hours by myself... I should have come here with someone else.

"Fashion buildings" in the Dongdaemun area are something unique to Seoul. These high-rise department stores - Migliore, Doota, and Hello apM are the three big names with Doota the most stylish - house 1500 to 2000 shop tenants most of which are casualwear boutiques. What's interesting is that among all the other busy floors devoted to young fashion is one quiet floor for Korean traditional dresses for girls. Sooyoung told me that on New Year's Day she wears such a traditional dress and bows to her parents for showing appreciation - Korea is a Confucian country.

Korean traditional dresses on sale in Doota fashion buildingKorean traditional dresses for baby girls(?).

What's also unbelievable is that they are open until 5 AM. Even boutiques or any department stores in Tokyo close before midnight. I visited these buildings after midnight. A large volume of Korean pop music with good sound quality was pumped out at the entrance. Inside the buildings were quite a few young Korean people (some looked teens). I wonder how they go home after the metro and bus services are over around midnight - no night buses in Seoul. But taxi fares are cheap in Seoul - it begins with 1900 won (less than 1 pound or 1.5 dollars) for the fist 2 kilometers.

Finally, Cheong Gye Cheon, a small stream cutting across Central Seoul. It used to be covered by the highway. But the current mayor of Seoul decided to scrap the highway and to restore the stream. The restoration work just completed last year. I saw quite a few Koreans, especially families with children, enjoying themselves by walking along the stream. This is suggestive to Tokyo, where there is a similar plan of getting rid of highways overshadowing Nihonbashi, a historical bridge.

As I stayed at Morishita-san's place on the second night in Seoul, I managed to get a glimpse of what life in Seoul is like. I followed him and his wife when they went to a supermarket. Supermarkets in Seoul are again different from those in Tokyo. There are not many large supermarkets in this city. Lotte Mart and E-Mart - the only (?) two large supermarkets in Central Seoul - are pretty much of Anglo-Saxon type with an exception of quite a few "campaign girls" sent by product companies. They wear short skirts and white boots that remind me of "super loose socks" (fashionable only briefly among Japanese high school girls about a decade ago). It sounds like Japanese-style, but we don't have such girls in supermarkets. (They inhabit streets in Tokyo.) People in Seoul come here once a week to buy everything they need for the coming week, which is different from the Japanese style of household shopping - Japanese housewives like to go to supermarkets almost everyday to buy ingredients for tonight's dinner etc. Finally, products on sale often come with a completely irrelevant extra - cereals coupled with towels, for example. It doesn't seem to be part of sales promotion. It's probably just that supermarkets attach unsold stuff randomly to newly stocked products, or so guessed Morishita-san.

Surprisingly, information on Seoul in English is very limited on the web. True that English speakers find it difficult to explore this city as everything is written in Hanguel letters (and sometimes in Chinese characters, which helps me a lot). But I got a sense that exploring this Far Eastern city further will be intriguing. Two days and a half isn't enough! I want to visit Seoul again.

Many, many thanks go to Sooyoung and Morishita-san.

Seoul 2006 - Part III: Japan and Korea in the past

(Continued from Seoul 2006 - Part II: Korean cuisine.)

(From above, Seoul Railway Station (now disused), the Bank of Korea Museum, and Seoul City Hall)

The third thing that I learned during this trip was what Japan did to Korea in the past. As you might know, history education in Japan is terrible in the sense that we do not learn properly about what our ancestors did to Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. It was a weird experience to see some old modern buildings in Seoul were built by the Japanese during colonial time (see photos above).

There are a few former palaces in Seoul, but most buildings inside these palaces date back to, at most, the 17th century because the Japanese army burned them all down in the late 16th century... We do learn Japan invaded Korea at that time but I didn't know the Japanese samurai soldiers reached as far as Seoul... Koreans all know these things. I think I need to learn this kind of stuff properly, but I'm not sure if Japanese historians have properly studied it. (Unlike the EU, where historians across countries cooperate and produce the common history textbook, there has been no communication between Japanese and Korean/Chinese scholars in history, if I understand correctly.)

(Continued to Seoul 2006 - Part IV: Attractions in Seoul)

Seoul 2006 - Part II: Korean cuisine

(Continued from Seoul 2006 - Part I: Cityscape of Seoul)

Secondly, Korean cuisine. Its ingredients are more or less similar to those of Japanese cuisine, but they cook them quite differently. On the first evening in Seoul, Sooyoung, my Korean friend in Seoul, took me to a restaurant in the Gangnam area. It was full of surprises. Doenjang-jjigae, soybean paste stew, looks like Japanese miso soup, but smells of natto, fermented soybeans unique to Japanese cuisine. This confused me a lot. These two - miso soup and natto - are different things to me, but they are part of the same dish for Koreans. Sooyoung was surprised to know that I didn't know this national stew for Koreans. How little I knew about Korea. I also had mackerel-kimchi stew. Again an impossible combination in Japanese cuisine (Kimchi, Korean spicy pickled salad, is popular in Japan as well, but Japanese people eat it only with barbecued meat, never with fish.

The list still goes on. Koreans love beef and pork grilled on an indoor barbecue. Japanese love it as well though we usually broil raw beef (not so often pork) while Koreans more often than not barbecue marinated beef and pork. But the crucial difference is that Koreans dip grilled beef or pork into kinako powder (ground soybean). Kinako in Japan is used for eating mochi - sticky rice cake - especially on New Year's holidays or for sweets. Its combination with grilled meat is again an impossible one in Japanese cuisine. On the other hand, it's an impossible mix for Koreans to eat boiled rice with barbecued meat, which Japanese love to do. Koreans wait for rice (or naengmyeon - cold noodles in soup) until they finish eating meat. They also use pears extensively for cooking - to make marinating sauce for barbecue or to add slices to naengmyeon and yukhoe (raw beef strips). Japanese only eat them as dessert.

The similarity-cum-difference is not limited to ingredients. Koreans use a large pair of scissors to cut grilled meat on a barbecue, which initially made me feel uncomfortable - the pair of scissors they use looks like the one we Japanese use for cutting cloth or gardening. When we do an indoor barbecue, beef is already sliced to a mouthful size. Koreans put a large chunk of meat on a barbecue and then cut it into pieces after grilled.

Korean cuisine is quite diverse, by the way. I only knew the tip of iceberg. My favorite turned out to be dwaeji kalbi (marinated pork ribs on a barbecue) and jumullok (marinated loin beef that is unstiffened by hands). Plus, lo and behold, it's value for money. Dwaeji kalbi costs around 8000 Korean wons (4 pounds or 6.5 dollars) while jumullok at Seogyangchip, a rather expensive (by Korean standards) restaurant in the Mapo district, costs 30000 Korean wons (15 pounds or 25 dollars). These prices include a wide range of side dishes - different kinds of kimchis, garlic cloves for grilling, lettuce leaves for rolling barbecued meat, and, in the case of Seogyangchip, naengmyeon noodle soup. This is a Korean way of serving dishes. If you order one main dish (or two), you'll get a wide range of side dishes as well - what side dishes come along differ restaurant by restaurant. (Continued to Seoul 2006 - Part III: Japan and Korea in the past.)

Seoul 2006 - Part I: Cityscape of Seoul

I visited Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, for the first time from the evening of 24th through the morning of 28th March 2006. It was in many senses educational. Which means how little I knew about this neighbouring country to Japan.

The first thing that struck me was how similar the cityscape of Seoul is to that of Tokyo. But people there, of course, speak Korean, not Japanese, and use Hangeul - Korean alphabets, which are totally different from Japanese alphabets (hiragana and katakana) - for all signboards. So all I saw looked what I'd seen before in Tokyo, which was not the case. This dazzled me a lot. To be fair, it's probably partly because I came directly from London, not from Tokyo. My images of Tokyo were not quite accurate as it was one year and three months ago when I last visited Japan's capital city. Still, the fact that this was my first time experience of visiting a rich country that doesn't use European or Japanese language probably enhanced my confusion. (Continued to Seoul 2006 Part II: Korean cuisine.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Economics of Terrorism

On 22nd, 23rd, and 24th February, Alan Krueger, known to economists as a leading labour economist coming up with innovative (and sometimes controversial) empirical research strategies or known to the general public as a New York Times columnist (the list of his columns), came to LSE and gave this year's Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures. The topic was - lo and behold - terrorism.

Professor Krueger began his lecture by explaining why economics can investigate terrorism. His answer: it's an application of occupational choice theory. :)

The recurring theme of the three-day lecture series was that poverty DOES NOT matter to terrorism. After the 9/11, the world's political figures all say that one of the important strategies to combat international terrorism is to tackle poverty. But there is NO evidence for supporting such a claim.

The first lecture focuses on micro evidence for causes of terrorism. First, public opinion polls conducted in Islamic countries suggest that poor people are just as likely to justify terrorism as rich people are. If anything, MORE educated people tend to support terrorist acts. Surveys of actual terrorists reveal that they are richer and more educated than the general public, except for the IRA in which terrorists were poor and uneducated. Prof. Krueger provides possible explanations for this anomaly: for Northern Ireland, rich people could leave for the United States easily. Also the Northern Ireland case is more like a civil war, for which recent economic analysis shows that poverty matters.

A possible theoretical explanation for why richer and more educated people become terrorists is as follows. From the supply side, well-off people are drawn to extreme views because information acquisition cost is low. Poor people are unable to learn anything. From the demand side, a terrorist group wants to recruit smart people because it requires high-skilled labour to conduct terrorism and the cost of failure is substantial (if members are arrested, the group as a whole will not survive).

It's not that lack of education matters. It is the content of education that matters.

The second lecture focuses on macro evidence for causes of terrorism. Using the US government data (the reliability of which, though, is severely limited as pointed out in this New York Times column in 2004), the countries of origin of international terrorism are by no means poor while the countries of target tend to be rich. What's correlated with countries of origin is the lack of civil liberty. Investigating nationalities of foreign insurgents in Iraq captured during April to October 2005 yields similar results. They are not coming from poor countries but from countries without civil rights.

The last lecture then focuses on consequences of terrorism. There are two views on economic consequences of terrorism: terrorism having a large effect versus terrorism having a small effect. Evidence seems to suggest that terrorism has a significant impact on the economy if it is repeated for a long period while it has a negligible effect if it is temporary. Abadie and Gardeazabal (2003) convincingly show that terrorism in the Basque region of Spain reduced the region's GDP by 10 percent. Another study (I forgot the author's name - if you know this study, let me know), on the other hand, shows that terrorist attacks against listed companies in the U.S. during 1975 to 2002 (excluding the 9/11 as an attack against airline companies) reduced the stock values of targeted companies just by 0.064 percent of the US GDP per year.

I couldn't follow the lecture part on psychological consequence of terrorism...

If you're interested, here's the list of papers on which the lectures were based upon (on Prof. Krueger's website).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life Expectancy

Lent term is about to end. I learned several things during this term. But I'm sure I'm going to forget them in a month or so. So let me write them down here. The first instalment is about life expectancy. If you spot any inaccurate descriptions below, let me know by leaving a comment.

1. Life expectancy is visualized as follows. Take age on the x-axis and take the proportion of survivors to a certain age on the y-axis. From the data on death rates for each age cohort, you can plot the proportion of survivors for each age. The area surrounded by the x and y axes and the plot curve is life expectancy at birth. (Added on 16th March: Of course, one cannot estimate life expectancy for each cohort because then you need to track this cohort until the last person dies. For practicality, demographers assume that each cohort will face the same survival probability as the one currently faced by older cohorts. Special thanks to Bessho-san (his Japanese blog), who emailed me on this point.)

2. In the demography literature, various ways to decompose change in life expectancy between two points in time have been developed during the past 25 years. But the most useful is still one of the first proposals: Arriaga, E.E. (1984). "Measuring and explaining the change in life expectancies", Demography, 21, pp.83-96.

3. Crude death rates are sensitive to age composition of the population. Even if the death rates for every age group doesn't change, the crude death rate of the population goes up if the proportion of old people to the population goes up. A solution to this is standardized death rates, in which the population death rate is calculated with the age structure fixed. But then the arbitrariness of the choice of a "standard" age composition is a problem.

4. A good reference of these issues is Demography: Measuring and Modeling Population Processes, by Samuel H. Preston, Patrick Heuveline, and Michel Guillot (Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Drum & bass meets live drums

This week BBC 1Xtra, a digital radio station specializing in urban music, features XTRABASS06 - everyday at midnight it broadcasts drum & bass club nights live for two hours. The first 1 hour of last night's show was awesome. L Double, a drum & bass DJ who has a regular show on 1Xtra, plays his dj set with Jungle Drummer, probably the world's only drummer playing drum & bass. Drum & bass is a digital music - all sound is created by computers. But when it meets live drum sound, voila, the vibe is totally different. Check this out! (Skip the first few minutes and ignore the last 50 minutes or so where Scratch Perverts play their lost-in-focus mediocre DJ set)

By the way, I went to Paris last week for just two days. Below you can see photos and so forth.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Centre Pompidou, the back facade

Centre Pompidou, the back facade
Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in 1977. Paris's counterpart of Tate Modern. But it doesn't just house a contemporary art museum but also a library, performance spaces, and a cinema - a revolutionary concept for an modern art museum. To ensure a vast space inside, air-conditiong, pipes, lifts, and escalators are all attached outside the building. As is often the case with contemporary art museums, the building itself is more fascinating than what it houses inside. Its top-floor cafe/restaurant Georges is superb in terms of its decor and foods except for the fact that the waiter sneaked a bottle of Vittel into my bill, which raised the total amount by 6 euro.

Tour Eiffel

Tour Eiffel
Again this is what every tourist takes a photo of. But I had to. Viewed from the hill of Palais de Chaillot (just a few second walk from Trocadero metro station), the Eiffel Tower, combined with greenery of Parc du Champ de Mars at the back and Palais de Chaillot in the front, taught me the pleasure of watching a geometrically symmetric construction. Some youngsters were playing skateboards and inline skates on the vast square of Palais de Chaillot with a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower, probably the world's most luxurious place for skateboarding and inline-skating.

Parc Monceau

Parc Monceau
Normal tourists wouldn't visit this park in the 8th arrondissement. But when I browsed through Chikyu-no-Arukikata Paris (the Japanese counterpart of Lonely Planet with far more photos and far less sentences), a photo of Parc Monceau caught my eyes: a pond surrounded by a Corinthian colonnade. It is a tranquil, but strange park: weird follies are scattered around the park.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


In addition to being caught up in a metro train carriage just like in London, I was also caught up in rain just like in London. Even worse, rain in Paris never stops, unlike London. I forgot bringing an umbrella. I tried to run away into the Louvre, only to find that Tuesday is a holiday for this massive museum. I looked into Time Out Guide Paris and found Paris has got what they call "concept stores", represented by Colette. Thankfully, the Colette store is close to the Louvre.

It's an interesting store. They sell anything as long as it's cool - from iPod accessories to fashionable digital cameras, from cool music CDs to art books on the ground floor. Upstairs they have trendy clothes on sale - I found a very fancy jacket for a man (but with the price tag of 800 euro) - as well as some art exhibition featuring UK (The Evening Standard's news headline posters at newsstands fill up the entire wall... What can be art changes a lot across the Channel).

Here I found an interesting art magazine: ArtIt. This is a Japanese art magazine written both in Japanese and in English. This is what I've been looking for. Japanese words and expressions used to talk about art are often very difficult to translate into English. This magazine tries to overcome this. Even though this is nothing to do with Paris, I had to buy this magazine.

While strolling around Paris, I found quite a few small shops selling and displaying Japanese stuff. Japanese restaurants also abound. I saw an ad poster of a manga school. I felt the fact that Japan is cool is already obvious in Paris. Parisians seem to now try to take it to a next level by treating Japan as one of many cool things they can exploit. In this sense, Paris goes ahead of London.

Paris Metro

Compared to London Underground, Paris metro is much, much more pleasant to use. Although I was stuck in a Ligna 1 train carriage not moving for 15 mintues - I think I was very unfortunate; why on earth did I need to go through this typical London experience even in Paris? - the design of train carriages and stations looked better. Paris metro trains do not decorate too much. Inside the carriage everything is basically silver. Outside the carriage they use pale colors to decorate. London Underground trains are painted in vivid colors like red and blue outside and for grab bars inside, which sometimes causes me a headache. Station platforms are clean and well-designed - some of which I even took a photo of. The space inside carriages is wider, the noise kept to a minimum. It's much closer to Tokyo's subway, but even better because Paris metro keeps advertisement to a minimum while Tokyo's is extensively decorated with ad posters.

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the east side

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the east side
I personally like the east side most. I didn't plan to visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral. But when I saw this east side from a distance when I walked on the bridge over the Seine (Pont de la Tournelle, the bridge between the Ile St-Louis and Latin Quarter), I immediately changed my mind.

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the north side

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the north side

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the west front

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the west front
I admit I did a bad job here. I tried to take a bit different photograph because the west front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is what every tourist takes photo of. But what's beautiful about this side of the Cathedral is its symmetric facade. Taking its photo at an angle is a terrible idea...

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the south side

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the south side

Le Petit Marche

9 rue de Bearn - 75003 (Tel. 01 42 72 06 67)

A restaurant just two blocks north of Place des Vosges in Le Marais. With less than 20 euro, you'll have a fantastic lunch set - proper French with a hint of Southeast Asian flavour. Presentation is also artistic. If only I could speak French... (No waiter/waitress speaks English here and no English menu.)

Institut du Monde Arabe

Institut du Monde Arabe
Designed by Jean Nouvel in the 1980s. Windows are decorated with camera apertures, looking like an Islamic art pattern. If you go up to the top floor, you can see these windows from inside:
A window viewed from inside Institut de Monde Arabe
The top floor has a conference room with these windows on one side. I want to organize a conference here: it's cool.
A conference room in Institut de Monde Arabe

La Grande Arche de La Defense

La Grande Arche de La Defense
Designed by Johan Otto von Spreckelsen in 1989. Every bit of the gigantic Grande Arche shows no sign of compromise. What's particularly twisted is the fact that although the Grande Arche is located on the same straight line stretching from the Louvre Museum through Champs Elysees Avenue and the Arc de Triomphe, the Arche itself is facing slightly askew. In the picture above, the line of darker tiles goes straight to the Arc de Triomphe. Notice that the Arche is slightly looking left.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Who's an "engineer" in the economic policy sphere?

Today's EOPP Happy Hour was really enlightening. (For those who do not know what EOPP is, EOPP is a research group consisting of professors and PhD students of economics at LSE interested (mainly) in development economics and political economy.)

The topic was "What defines economics?" But the discussion flew into the issue of the relationship of economics with policy-makers.

We had Professor Paul Gertler from UC Berkeley as a guest. And he made a couple of revealing remarks.

In addition to academic works, he's been doing policy advice works in developing countries like Mexico, Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, etc. When he talked to politicians in these countries about what development policy should be undertaken, their first response was

"Does it get me into trouble?"

When he said no, then the next response was

"Does it make me look smart?"

When he said yes, then the third response was

"Does it make the public better off?"

He also told us that the reason for why conditional cash transfer schemes (CCTs) like Oportunidades (formerly known as PROGRESA) in Mexico and Bolsa Familia in Brazil, where poor households receive cash from the goverment conditional upon sending kids to school etc., is more acceptable for policy-makers than, say, simply providing education to all kids for free. The empirical evidence shows that CCTs are by no means more cost-efficient. But politicians love it because parents will vote for them if they implement CCTs (parents get cash!). Providing free education, on the other hand, does not directly benefit those with voting rights.

Then the following discussion led us to the idea that there needs to be "engineers" in the economic policy sphere, a metaphor suggested by Tan. Engineers are those who know natural science and apply it to real situations. Likewise, we need someone who knows economics and knows how to implement it to reality.

The following is the point made by Professor Mark Schankerman. Economists are good at finding WHAT the efficient outcome is. A good example is free trade. But economists are bad at finding HOW the efficient outcome can be achieved. That's why politicians often don't like the free trade policy, for example. In the process of implementing free trade, there will be those who lose from free trade. Politicans cannot ignore such people. Finding what the efficient policy is is like what scientists do in natural science. But finding how it is achieved in reality is a different job. In the case of natural science, engineers undertake such a job. What about social science?

Who can be an "engineer" in the economic policy sphere? Time was over at this point. I wonder if this is a journalist who understands economics well. Or maybe this is what political economists or political scientists (the distinction is very blurred these days) are all about.

This is how Japan does diplomacy.

Captain Tsubasa is one of the most well-known Japanese anime/manga in the world. I still remember a Chinese guy I met in London loves this cartoon. I still remember a French girl working at a travel agency in London who wants to travel to Japan because she wants to see the Japanese landscape illustrated in Captain Tsubasa. (I later learned that Captain Tsubasa was a big hit in France a few years ago, which triggers Europeans' interest in Japanese manga and animation.) I still remember a soccer shop in Allepo, the second largest city in Syria, decorates its entrance with posters of Captain Tsubasa (known as Captain Majid in the Middle East).

Now it's going to be used as a tool of developing friendship between Japan and Iraq (see United Press International; Middle East Online). But I wonder if the fact that Captain Majid will be aired in "The U.S. government-funded Iraqi Media Network" stifles everything...