I have to admit that I'm a bit of a Japan-o-phile. My relationship with the place started when I was a competitive analyst at Apple, which paid me to fly over there and wander the Akihabara electronics district buying interesting products (you never appreciate the really good jobs until you're reminiscing about them).
If you've never been to Akihabara, it's an area of maybe six or seven square blocks packed with electronics department stores, many of them six or eight stories tall. There's also a warren of tiny shopfront cubicles selling individual components – capacitors in one, switches in another, ICs in a third.
It all makes Fry's Electronics, the geek electronics mecca of Silicon Valley, look like a lemonade stand.
The great thing about Akihabara is the intense variety of electronic stuff. I remember standing in awe before a wall with more than a hundred shavers, each with a slightly different mix of features. And the mobile phones! Shapes and colors and especially features years before they appear anywhere else.
Now Apple's long behind me and nobody's paying me to go play in Japan anymore, which is frustrating because I'm losing touch with the trends. The tech press and analysts aren't much help because they mostly ignore Japan. But I've found two websites that help.
The first site is Wireless Watch Japan. I've spent a long time looking for the ultimate English-language site for mobile news from Japan, and I haven't found it yet (post a comment if you have advice). But Wireless Watch is pretty good – it posts a lot of news, which is all consolidated to the RSS feed (the feed seems to have more articles than the homepage). The downside is that it truncates its articles and you have to pay $200 a year to get the full text. Still, it's a good place to follow sagas like Vodafone's sad exit from Japan after it bought and then screwed up the former J-Phone. Plus the website carries a running tally of the subscribers to each of the Japanese operators (just over half of Japanese mobile users are now on 3G, by the way).
The second site is What Japan Thinks. This is a collection of translated market research studies, exploring strange and interesting aspects of Japanese culture. Many of the studies are tech-related, which makes the website a mix of useful and truly bizarre information. Recent tidbits: 25% of Japanese people surveyed said they use their mobile phones more than three hours a day, only 1.4% of Japanese coffee shop users go there to use a personal computer, and the three most popular cuts of grilled meat in Japan are beef ribs, chicken thighs, and tongue. Who knew?
The methodology of the studies varies from strong to completely invalid (for instance, the one on phone usage was apparently self-selected, which biases a study strongly toward enthusiasts). So you need to read the details of each report very carefully. But the information's often thought-provoking, and I can't find anything else like it in English.
I'd love to find similar sites for other Asian countries. If you know of any, or if you have other suggestions for Japan, please post a comment. In the meantime, although the ones I've listed here are not as good as a trip to Akihabara, at least you don't have to spend ten hours crammed into JAL coach to get there.