Cashless is fast and convenient? Point app mania reality check

My partner wanted to pick up some cheap t-shirts on bargain sale at Uniqlo yesterday. The Asagaya station building Beans shopping mall has all the latest cashless options but very bad network service so Uniqlo checkout was a comedy routine. First he brought up the Uniqulo app to get Uniqlo points, then I brought up my JRE POINT app to earn JRE POINT, then he finally paid with QR Code dBarai (docomo). But for each app launch and load we had to run to the store entrance to capture enough network connection for the apps codes to load. The staff is very used to this and suggest customers do so when apps didn’t load, patiently folding clothes while they run back and forth. I asked the cashier if this happens all the time. She smiled and nodded. “Cash is probably faster isn’t it?” She smiled and nodded.

Gosh, just when we thought cashless was going to free us from the so called inconvenient drudgery of cash along came smartphone reward point apps that bog down the whole cashless checkout experience, neatly killing off the supposed time saving advantage. You stand in line while the checkout customer fiddles with smartphone, digging around in an app to find the right coupon code thing. You feel smug until it’s your turn and the networks sucks, the discount coupon doesn’t load and bam, you’re holding up the line too. It has gotten to the point where Nikkei XTECH has provided an Apple Pay help article for faster checkout that explains the benefits of using Apple Value Added Services. Will Apple Pay VAS dPoint and Apple Pay VAS PONTA really help us? Probably not as they only work at LAWSON.

There is another checkout trend I see recently. With price increases everywhere people are using cash a lot more, even at places like in-station Beck’s Coffee Shop. Every customer has a Suica but more young people are keeping it in their pocket and plucking down ¥10,000 yen notes for ¥300 ice coffee. Why? I think it’s Kakebo culture at play, it’s easier to budget with cash payments and the small slightly inconvenient physical routines that accompany it. It’s not about doing everything with cash, but good old tsukae-wake compartmentalization helps keep focus and tamps down the impulsiveness when doing everything cashless. Another way of spreading the risk in these uncertain times.

Climbing Mt. Shichimen

I had not been to Mt. Shichimen since golden week vacation 2020, during the very first COVID pandemic ‘state of emergency’. It was a surreal trip to say the least. Shinjuku station and the Chuo Expressway were completely deserted on a Saturday as I rode all alone, the only passenger on the Keio Highway bus to Minobu.

This time, golden week 2022, there were people thank goodness, at Shinjuku station, on the bus and in the highway rest areas. Even Minobu looked somewhat lively with day tourists enjoying a vacation day drive in the countryside. But there were signs of decay from two years of COVID restricted travel. A shop closed here, a vacant lot there. There were visitors, but few pilgrims. The temple inns for them (shukubo) were mostly empty at a time they should have been full.

And because they were mostly empty the staff were generous with food and drink. When I ordered a cup of sake to go along with dinner, the head priest of Chijaku-bo brought an opened sake bottle urging me to finish it off saying, “I don’t drink now and this will go to waste.” I obliged but drank far more than bargained for. I took a bath then stood outside in the cool evening air to let my head settle, listening to the sounds of the river as a crescent moon slid into a black outline of mountain peaks.

Next morning I took the early bus to the Shichimen trail base. The climb is recorded in the video. I tried to capture all 50 ‘chome’ point markers but missed a few. The video is a kind of experiment to see what works and what doesn’t in preparation of another climb to record the protective dragon legend of Mt. Shichimen. Until then…

2021 Wrap

2021 wasn’t the best of years, certainly not a good one for transit as ridership everywhere continues to be severely impacted by COVID. Yet travel in Japan felt normal, more or less the new normal of face masks in public places and hand gel dispensers at the door…but compared to 2020 even that felt more like a formality than life saving ritual. Even while the Japanese media was breathlessly quoting daily infection rates and carping about the lack of COVID ICU with the Japanese medical system supposedly on the verge of collapse, people went about their business. Travel to Niigata and Sado when infection rates were said to be ‘sky rocketing’ was easy, people there were out shopping or enjoying restaurants. Things were busy, which was good to see.

Blog-wise 2021 was tough. Tech news felt perfunctory with everybody running on to the next delicious rumor the moment new hardware shipped, all without much thought or analysis, like bratty kids in a candy store running around chasing shiny new things. Transit and payment news was off the rails, while Apple Pay was more in the news for European and Australian antitrust investigations than any new features. The Japanese news cycle that normally picks up steam in the fall failed to build after the Tokyo Olympic as if everybody had blown their wad. PayPay service announcements were more like marketing spin as they started charging merchant transaction fees for the first time.

Writing-wise I tried my best to be positive and productive in the face of adversity. For better or worse here are the some of my favorite 2021 posts, not necessarily popular. If there is one thing I have leaned over the years is that a five minute throw away post is often more popular than posts I spend a lot of time on. That’s the way it goes.

Thanks always for reading and best wishes for 2022!

Best

Inside Hiragino: Hiragino Shock and the Apple Publishing Glyph Set is my favorite as I wanted to record some the important things Steve Jobs helped foster in the Japanese publishing market with OS X. Former Apple systems engineer Yasuo Kida kindly shared some important stories from the Apple development side.

The Apple Pay Japan 5 year mark: all of this or nothing, was another favorite and the most fun to write. Suica marked its 20th anniversary, Apple Pay Suica marked its 5th, both very important developments for Japanese transit and payments. It should have been a bigger celebration but like just like the Tokyo Olympics, it got lost in the COVID news era.

Secrets of iOS 15 Apple Wallet, now that Apple Pay payments and transit are well established the next Wallet frontiers are ID, keys and UWB. As these are more complex puzzles than NFC payments, progress will be gradual.

Payment and transit 2021 highlights

Typography stuff

The big news was Sha-Ken and Morisawa agreeing to co-develop the Sha-Ken type library for OpenType. One of the interesting things about Sha-Ken fonts is that they are known outside of Japan because they were extensively used in Japanese manga up until the early 2000’s. It will be interesting to see how designers and artists resurrect the Sha-Ken font legacy after they go on sale in 2024. In other news Apple is, once again, rebooting their typography and layout developer frameworks with TextKit2.

Fun fluff

Un-worry
The Buddha’s face is only seen thrice
Only Japan has cute transit card mascots?!
Hidden Sado
Ignore NFC logos
Sayonara to the last switchback bus terminal

Obon Okuribi 2021

It’s a shame that the famous Kyoto Okuri-bi send off bonfires will be limited again this year. It’s an outside event and I don’t see the point of caution. Hopefully the souls of family ancestors will still be able to find their way home and back again in these dark times. A friend of mine, Rev. Sensho Komukai wrote a nice article that describes the event and the Buddhist tradition behind it. Hopefully the bonfires will burn in full glory in 2022.


August 13-16 is the traditional Obon period, when the souls of deceased family members are believed to return home from the other world. A fire is burned as a guide sign to welcome our ancestors on the evening of the 13th (mukae-bi) and to send off the spirits on the 16th (okuri-bi).

Great okuribi bonfires are seen on five mountains in Kyoto on the evening of August 16th. Each bonfire has a different character as follows: Dai (大), Myo (妙), Ho (法) a boat shape, and a shrine gate shape. At 8:00 p.m. the character of Dai is lit first. Myo and Ho are then lit ten minutes later.

Myo and Ho bonfires have been prepared for centuries by the Nichiren Shu supporters of Yusenji Temple and Myoenji Temple of the Matsugasaki district in North Kyoto. Myo has 103 burning woodpiles, and Ho has 63. Each woodpile has been traditionally allotted to a family member of the two temples.

One woman who came to Matsugasaki after marriage said with a sigh,

“It is still hot in August. When the bonfires are lit, there is no refuge area from the heat. I was all sweaty, dying of thirst. I helped the bonfire event out of a sense of obligation. Once we finished, I went down the mountain with a sense of great relief. However, when I arrived home, my grandmother-in-law had brought a family ihai tablet out into the garden and was holding her palms together in Gassho toward the bonfires on the mountain, I felt ashamed of myself. People in Matsugasaki respectfully send off their ancestors with all their heart. Their religion and culture have been handed down with high esteem. It was my mistake to think so little of the bonfire event.”

After the bonfires of Myo and Ho burn out in 30 minutes, the Bon dance starts in the precincts of Yusenji Temple. The dance originated in 1307, when a Tendai priest, Jitsugen, who was very impressed by Nichizo, converted his faith to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shu teaching.

All village people of Matsugasaki became devotees of Nichizo and Nichiren Shu. Priest Jitsugen felt joy chanting the Odaimoku while beating the drum. The villagers began to dance, and this “Daimoku dance” became the origin of the Bon festival dance. In modern times, people dance with simple beating of the drum and quiet chanting rather than a joyful dance. They want to think back deeply to the days they spent with their beloved families and silently express gratitude toward their ancestors on the Obon send-off day.

Daimoku Dance

The Owakon

If you watch Japanese YouTubers like Heraiza you soon hear the buzzword ‘Owakon’. Owakon is one of those clever Japanese creations that combines ‘owari’ (over) + ‘content’ to create a handy new expression for ‘oh so over’ dead content. And it doesn’t only apply to things, it applies to people too, like ‘oh so over’ dead-tired, overexposed TV ‘talent’ living off the management company connections instead of real talent.

One of the many interesting realizations brought home by the COVID crisis: being stuck at home has only proved how dead Japanese TV is. Young people have turned it off and are streaming or watching YouTube. Proof? Look no further than the overflow of YouTube ‘Kaidan’ content. Kaidan (ghost stories), are a traditional folk performance so well loved in Edo era, also firmly engrained in the Rakugo cannon.

Kaidan YouTuber channels like Shinpei Shimada, Nana-fushigi, Toshi Boys (City Boys) Yachin no Yasui Heya (Cheap rent room) and countless others are fascinating…not so much for the content but the fact that these channels are pulling in viewers and ads. Money and eyeballs are going here instead of ‘Owakon’ TV. Nanafushiki is a duo who were working regional events and radio but never made it big on TV doing better than ever on YouTube.

Heraiza, as usual, deftly points out why Owakon TV talent does so badly when going YouTube. Her latest goes to the heart, er jugular, in her take down of TV comedian Hiroyuki Miyasako’s just announced ‘revolutionary’ new YouTube show: Farthest end of the world Restaurant. The problem? Nothing new and not enough sex, just tired old TV comedians and their management companies trying to escape Owakon TV.

Good luck with that.