Saturday, January 30, 2010

Japanese Commercials + Cats = Hilarity

The Japanese sure do know how to use animals in commercials. One of my favorites is Otosan, the Akita Inu featured in the SoftBank commercials . . .

. . . and uribo, Mitsui Sumitomo's wild boar.

Thanks to Japan Probe, I now love Nyaran!

It's brilliant. The commercial is for Jalran, a Japanese travel company. The cat's name is Nyaran, which is a play on words with Jalan. Whereas Westerners think cats say meow, to the Japanese, cats make the sound nya. Nya replaces the first syllables of words when the Japanese make cutesy things with cat references. For example, Nyan Nyan Nyanko, a set of characters in the San-X franchise, uses nya or nyan for all of their words.

Anyway, back to Nyaran! Nyaran is a salaryman, and he's very Japanese. In this commercial, he is going on a business trip, or shucchou (出張). Like most Japanese who travel, Nyaran takes the bullet train, or Shinkansen (新幹線), and enjoys a green tea and a boxed lunch, or bento (弁当). He presents a fish-shaped business card, or meishi (名刺), to his clients and gives a presentation to sell his "beef sphere manju," or nikukyu manju (肉球まんじゅう). After an exhausting day, he passes out in a business hotel, the reservations for which were made through Jalan.

Curious about Jalan, I clicked the link on Japan Probe's site and found even more commercials with Nyaran. I love the one where he's at a hot springs, or onsen (温泉). Each commercial depicts how the Japanese travel and what they do when they go on day trips.

There's an explanation of Nyaran's "beef sphere manju" on the page as well. I don't understand everything, but it sure is cute! I need to figure out what his blog says so I can follow Nyaran!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Q&A with Bobby V.

Who's excited about Bobby V.?

                                        This guy!

Actually, we were all pretty happy to see Bobby Valentine at the Japan Society last Thursday night. The former baseball manager and current Baseball Tonight analyst was a captivating and engaging character, and he spoke candidly about the issues surrounding Nippon Professional Baseball and its Western counterpart.

"Japanese baseball is at a crossroads," Valentine says. "The level of baseball is very good, but the level of management and business is very bad."

Part of the reason the management is bad, according to Valentine, is that the fans aren't appreciated enough. I've talked about the amazing fans of Japanese baseball teams in this blog several times. Japanese fan clubs are highly organized entities that members pay to join. They create chants for each player, they have musicians who play during the games, and they have guys who wave giant team flags all day. Japanese fans are the craziest, most loyal fans in baseball. Valentine knows people who quit their jobs each summer so that they can devote all of their time to being fans. Bobby V. refers to these fans as Nippon Professional Baseball's greatest resource, yet the suits in NPB don't take care of that resource.

Valentine also addressed other issues concerning NPB, including answering my question – which I posted on the Japan Society's Facebook page, of all places – about the structure of its minor league system. Currently, there is only one minor league team (ni-gun in Japanese) for each major league team (ichi-gun), which Bobby described as "an impossible way to develop talent." His suggestion is to expand the minor league system or have more independent leagues, which have actually increased (to five) since he first addressed the problem with NPB. He also thinks the draft is problematic: NPB's twelve teams draft only eight players each (as opposed to the more than fifty rounds and hundreds of players being drafted in MLB). He then touched on dealing with the Japanese media ("There's not really a free press in the sports world of Japan"). Bobby V. opined that the only way to have a "true" World Series is to hold it in Hawaii and call it the "Championship for Charity," with proceeds benefitting children who will eventually become the next generation of professional baseball players.

Bobby V. makes an emphatic point while Ken Belson of The New York Times looks on.

Valentine fielded questions about managing the Mets again ("It's not as though you don't go back to the girl that dumped you, but it takes a little while, it takes a little convincing . . .") and what the Mets need to do to be successful in the 2010 season ("They need to stay healthy, but I like their talent.") Then there was the inevitable question about steroids in MLB that he answered – reluctantly at first, then with conviction. "The steroid situation wasn't a usage problem; it was a regulation and enforcement problem. And there weren't regulations, and therefore it couldn't be enforced." He went on to say that every manager and general manager during the so-called Steroid Era is at fault for letting it happen and looking the other way.

The most interesting thing I took away from the speech, however, was a common thread of Japanese instances that kept popping up throughout Valentine's life. Before the lecture, I thought his only connection with Japan was through his management of the Chiba Lotte Marines. He told stories about how contact with the people and the baseball culture of Japan actually began early, starting with a part in a high school play. When Bobby V. was sixteen years old, he played the role of Sakini, a Japanese interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Every few years after that, it seems his life was touched in some way by Japan. I wrote about "this little Japanese piece of silk" that wove its way through Bobby's heart, mind, and spirit in my review of the lecture for

Quite frankly, it was one of the best events I've seen at the Japan Society. Bobby V. is a gifted storyteller, and members of the audience asked great questions (which sometimes isn't the case at these things). I imagine some of the people in the crowd were there simply because they're Mets fans and not because they're crazy about Japanese baseball. That's cool; even someone who knows nothing about baseball would have enjoyed listening to Bobby speak.

Enjoying a post-speech reception

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Looking Forward to Bobby V.; Looking Back at Japanese Baseball

A cat makes balloon animals for a little girl outside Chiba Marine Stadium.

Yesterday I posted an article on about Bobby Valentine's upcoming talk at the Japan Society. Writing about the former Rangers/Mets/Chiba Lotte Marines manager made me think about my baseball tours with JapanBall and the lively atmosphere of the Japanese game.

Cheerleaders perform before a game at Chiba Marine Stadium in September 2008

We went to a game in Chiba on our own, separate from the JapanBall group. The tour was over, but Marc and I stayed in Japan until the first weekend of October 2008. We loved the experience of the games so much that we went to three more before returning to New York. The Chiba game turned out to be special because it was the last game the legendary Sadaharu Oh, then the skipper of the SoftBank Hawks, would manage at Chiba Marine Stadium. Our JapanBall group had an audience with Oh before seeing a game in Fukuoka, and shortly after that game, Oh announced he would retire at season's end. Two of the last three games Marc and I saw on our own in Japan – in Chiba and in Sendai – were contests against Fukuoka. We felt as if we were on the Sadaharu Oh farewell tour.

Fans of the Chiba Lotte Marines release balloons during the Japanese version of the "7th Inning Stretch." Because of the H1N1 scare, this practice was eliminated during the 2009 season. (Too bad; it was an amazing thing to witness.)

Viewing Japanese baseball is a unique experience. The atmosphere, the fans, the fans' cheers, the food, the stadiums were at once overwhelming and incredible. 

Mascots pose with children on the field during pregame ceremonies.

While writing my article yesterday, I also thought about The Zen of Bobby V., a documentary in which NYU film students followed the charismatic manager for one season. I still have it on TiVo, so I might watch it again in anticipation of Thursday's lecture. Who knows? Maybe I'll muster the courage to ask Bobby Valentine a question about the state of baseball in Japan, especially now that he's no longer there. Would make an interesting article . . .

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Tigers Have Arrived!

The Year of the Tiger has officially begun in the Hamaker household, as our tiger figurines have arrived!  Each year we order the characters to celebrate the designated animal of the year as dictated by the Chinese zodiac, which is called "eto" in Japanese.

Technically, the Year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, doesn't begin until February 14. Since the United States runs on Gregorian calendar, the Year of the Tiger began January 1. Since I didn't order my tigers until after the New Year, I suppose I run on the Procrastinator calendar.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reflecting on Japanese Baseball

I joined LinkedIn a long time ago, and I used to wonder what it would do for me. I connected to a few friends and colleagues, but didn't actually keep in touch. I joined groups, but never participated in any discussions. Basically, I thought that someone would suddenly discover me, think I was wonderful, and offer me a six-figure advance to write the next great novel.

In fact, I would have forgotten I had a profile on LinkedIn had it not been for the frequent updates from the Baseball Industry Network. Two such updates asked for members' Twitter account names and the addresses of our favorite baseball blogs. After ignoring most of these posts, I finally decided that it wouldn't hurt to respond. I gave my Twitter account (@SusanHamaker), my favorite blogs about baseball (NPB Tracker, Yakyu Baka, and My World of Baseball), and mentioned that I occasionally write about Japanese baseball on this blog.

Within hours of posting this, I received a message from Peter Schiller, the owner of the website Baseball Reflections, asking if I would like to contribute a monthly article about Japanese baseball. Of course, I did. Here is my first installment, an introduction to how I became a fan of baseball in Japan.

Shrine to baseball next to Koshien Stadium, Osaka, Japan

The moral of the story: If you're going to become involved in something, become involved in it. It's not what LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter does for you, but how you participate in those things that will give you results. It may take a while, but if you define your goals and are persistent in achieving them, eventually someone will take notice.

The sun sets over Koshien Stadium, Osaka, Japan.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Have Mr. Bento, Will Travel

In an article I wrote for, I described bento, the Japanese lunch box, as a great way to incorporate healthier eating into your New Year's resolutions. The Japanese have been making and consuming bento for centuries, and it seems to work for their diet.

Bento isn't a particular dish, but it's a mix of different healthy dishes packed into a box. There are no set rules for bento, but they generally contain rice or noodles, meat or fish, vegetables, and something fun like tofu or fishcake.

I explained in my article that Toru Furukawa, president of Fuji Catering, a bento-making company in New York, thinks Americans don't have a healthy balance in our meals. We eat large portions of greasy garbage, or, if we're too busy to sit down for a decent meal, we eat fast food. Furukawa is on a mission to help Americans – New Yorkers, at least – achieve the healthier balance contained within bento. I joined Furukawa on his mission and wrote my article to spur people into action.

After a holiday-bad-diet blowout for the ages, I decided to heed my own advice.

Since I travel every week in the winter for work, I needed to find a way to enjoy bento for at least one meal on the road. Enter Mr. Bento. Stackable in the same way as traditional bentos, Mr. Bento has the qualities of a thermos: He keeps the hot stuff hot and the cold stuff cold. I call him the uber-thermos of bento boxes.

He has a handy canvas bag.

Stainless steel makes Mr. Bento both functional and attractive.

My husband gave me Mr. Bento as a Christmas gift in 2008, and I used him, but only sparingly. Now I see what an important tool he can be for my diet. With the help of Naomi Kijima (Japanese Meals on the Go: Bento Boxes), Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat (Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals), and Elizabeth Andoh (Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen), I prepare my bento the night before or the morning of my business trip.

Mr. Bento has four compartments for food storage and a spork (bottom left). Phone not included. I put rice in the largest container, and it's anything goes for the others.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I prepared (from left) Japanese-style omelet, chicken wings, miso soup, and rice with adzuki beans.

The omelet here (called tamago) is what you'd find at a sushi place. Unlike the omelets we know in the West, there is nothing – cheese, tomatoes, ham – stuffed into these. Instead, the Japanese-style omelet is sweet, prepared with sake, sugar, and a dash of salt. It looks prettier when cooked by professionals. Okay, so I didn't exactly prepare the chicken wings. They were leftovers from Tebaya, a Japanese chicken-wing joint in my neighborhood. That's the beauty of bento: Leftovers make a quick and easy meal for the next day. And the wings aren't the greasy Buffalo wings fat guys devour at every sports bar, but they probably aren't the healthiest item to include in my bento. I'm working on it, though.

I mentioned earlier that Mr. Bento keeps the hot things hot and the cold things cold. Well . . . Disclaimer: For a reasonable length of time. I define "reasonable length of time" as two or three hours and not after making it at 2pm and then running errands and then taking a three-hour train ride to D.C. The bowls are microwavable, but my hotel room was sans kitchen appliances. That said, it wasn't completely gross. That said, I didn't completely finish it. I did, however finish the rice. The rice had adzuki beans and sesame seeds added for enhanced flavor. You can make the rice with fresh beans that you soak, or you can use ready-made packets. Guess which one I chose?

I highly recommend packing a bento for lunch or dinner whether your commute is two thousand miles or twenty minutes. You can find Mr. Bento at or more traditional bento boxes at You can use Tupperware instead; I just think Mr. Bento is the best. And the food you put into your bento doesn't have to be Japanese; there are a surprising amount of websites dedicated to bento preparation. My faves are Just Bento and Lunch in a Box.

So far this month I've had three trips and two successful bento experiences. The unsuccessful one involved my luggage remaining in Chicago after I arrived in Cincinnati, so I don't blame Mr. Bento. I'm looking forward to working with Mr. Bento to eat healthfully in 2010!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Or as they say in Japanese, 明けましておめでとうございます。

The New Year began in Tokyo with balloons flying through the air at Zojo-ji temple. It's common practice for the Japanese to attend midnight services at a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine.

According to the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. A special ceremony was held in Osaka, Japan, as the ox from last year handed over the reigns to the tiger of this year.

Susan Boyle of "Britain's Got Talent" fame sang at NHK's 60th Kohaku Uta Gassen, Japan's historic New Year's Eve singing extravaganza.