Archive for June, 2010

Big (Only) in Japan? ‘Greensleeves’

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Please hold and listen to "Greensleeves" on an endless loop

Please hold and listen to “Greensleeves” on an endless loop

Japanese bureaucracy is one of the most efficient (and at times efficiently frustrating) in the world. If you know the rules of the game – registering as a foreigner, paying for national health insurance and pension, registering a personal signature stamp, etc. – then you should have no trouble with life in Japan. However, if you don’t know or don’t like the written (and unwritten) rules, then you may chafe under the societal differences, and when you call the local office to ask why you’ve received yet another bill to pay, your frustration may only increase when they put you on hold and you are forced to listen to a MIDI version of the famous English folk song “Greensleeves.” Video gamers will recognize the tune from the “King’s Quest” series of games, and history buffs will be well familiar with the 16th-century ballad that is referred to in Shakespeare and Chaucer.

For whatever reason, the tune is one of the default melodies on telephone systems in Japan. Not that the tune is the only one available; this Brother fax machine, for example, offers over 30 different selections, including “fun” songs like “It’s a Small World” and “seasonal” songs such as “Hotaru no hikari” (also known as “Auld Lang Syne”). But Greensleeves is listed in the “soothing” category along with classics like “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” A closer look reveals that this particular model is advertising melodies for the arrival of faxes – not necessarily hold music. Whether or not Greensleeves deserves to be put in the “soothing” category is a debatable issue, but another model from the same company, however, makes it very clear that in Japan, Greensleeves = hold music.

Perhaps there is some unknown connection with “King’s Quest.” Perhaps a freelance MIDI artist was just producing a ton of different music and Greensleeves tested very “soothing” in the market studies. Even Japanese are baffled by this. On Yahoo Japan, a questioner asked “Why is ‘Greensleeves’ so frequently used as hold music?” The single response says, simply, “Maybe because average people like it.”

Whatever the reason, “Greensleeves” approaches a sort of symbolic value much like “Auld Lang Syne,” which is bigger in Japan than “Greensleeves” and used across the country at stores just before closing time (to signal that they are closing) and at graduation ceremonies (to signal that the kids are finished). “Greensleeves” signals, soothingly to some and annoyingly to others, that the caller is being made to wait. Just a few more seconds and they’ll be back. Almost there. Wait for it. Wait for iiit – omatase-shimashita.

Gyaru get cooking

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Gyaru mama at the supermarket

Gyaru mama at the supermarket

You’re not the only one who does a double-take at those over-tanned Japanese ladies with the blonde ringlets; advertisers are giving the gyaru a close second look, too.

Gyaru (and their various sub-genres – in parau dresses, in altered school uniforms and loose socks, in white eyeliner that approached blackface . . . ) started grabbing headlines in the mid-’90s and were a staple of “wide” talk shows and weekly magazines.

While the media spotlight might have dimmed, gyaru haven’t exactly faded into the background. In fact, they’ve become a formidable economic force, with their own magazines, cosmetic lines and fashion brands dedicated to their flashy sense of style and their embrace of all things cute and sparkly.

They’ve also had kids, and advertisers aren’t passing up the chance to reach out to growing gyaru families. The gyaru are now getting the CM treatment with a TV commercial aimed right at them. Ajinomoto has teamed up with “I LOVE mama” magazine to promote a cooking site for mobile phones called “mama gohan” (mama’s meals). Ajinomoto is a century-old company whose core product is bottled MSG, a Japanese kitchen staple that you have probably at some point mistaken for the salt shaker. The magazine is a lifestlye magazine for gyaru who are mothers. The keitai site  has recipes as well as solutions to cooking problems. The commercial itself celebrates cooking as a way to connect the gyaru of Japan and intersperses zoomy shots of healthy meals with wide-eyed young mothers, in huge bow headbands, flashing peace signs against blindingly pink backdrops.  The site promises to help add cuteness to every bento for the kiddies and to make every meal more adorable.

According to the press release, since mama gohan went live in April, the site has had hundreds of thousands of page views and lots of recipes uploaded by members. It’s all well and good to cut carrots into cute shapes and stick smiley faces in the rice, but we’d love to know if it explains how to handle kitchen implements with those long, appliqued gel nails.

Drinks on the house . . . all around

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Recession hit restaurants and bars all over Japan are actually giving away free drinks and food, in a desperate effort to attract new customers. In the new penny-pinching climate, normal discounts just don’t cut it with many and customers are now looking out for free offers, half-price discounts or bars that charge only ¥300 per drink or dish.

Watami are offering 50% cash back this month

Izakaya chain Watami are offering 50% cash back this month

The free drink offer is becoming increasingly popular in izakaya’s (Japanese pubs) where a free glass of shochu can get evening rolling. Shochu is a clear liquor made from rice, sweet potato or barley; cheap for the establishment to supply, it’s fairly potent (around 25% alcohol) and is a good way to get customers to loosen their purse strings. However, there are places that offer other drinks. Wall Bar Dining are giving away free glasses of beer and Izakaya Kakumei in Ginza, which opened June 4, offers not only free shochu but sake and umeshu (plum wine) as well.

Unlimited free snacks are also a good way to attract new business. Standing bar Q in Ebisu is offering free tabehodai (eat all you can) homemade smoked bacon. As soon as you enter the store you’re given a large platter of the stuff and invited to pig out – pun intended. Steak Burger and Salad Bar Ken, which opened in May this year, offer limitless servings of curry for customers who order steak.

Half-price menus have also been popping up, with popular izakaya Watami offering 50% cash back for a limited period. We also recommend Il Chianti in Kichijoji, who give an amazing 50% discount on pizza and beer every Monday night.

Back in October last year we reported on the rise of the ¥300 standing bar, since then prices have been slashed even further. Kechi yasui izakaya, loosely translated as “pubs for misers,” which price any dish or drink at only ¥300, have been popping up all over the place. Nikkei Trendy reports that in April, izakaya chain Watami went one better by starting up a chain of ¥250 izakaya – amazingly this price includes sales tax.

Last month I went to a slightly more upmarket, ahem, ¥270 izakaya in Shibuya. Though the clientele were mostly in their 20s, my Japanese friend and I noticed that nobody had brought a date. She commented that anyone who tried to bring a girl here would definitely be dumped for being stingy. While the dishes were a bit on the slim side, the beer servings were a decent size and the atmosphere was cheap but definitely cheerful. We say, bring on the bargains!

Unbridle your inner carnivore

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Marbled raw horse meat

How do you want your horse meat uncooked? (photo by shrk)

A new sushi shop has recently opened in a fashionable back alley of Ebisu, but don’t go expecting choice cuts of fatty tuna. Kato Meat Sushi caters exclusively to carnivores, with platters of horse meat, chicken, beef and pork, with much of it being served raw.

Raw horse meat, you say? It’s long been considered a delicacy in Japan and the concept of serving it as sashimi (basashi, or sakuraniku) has been around for awhile. It’s not too unusual to find at izakaya, especially the ones that specialize in regional cuisine. At Kato Meat Sushi, however, it’s the star of the menu. Customers can choose the grade of raw horse, just as if they would with tuna: lean, medium or fatty. The more fatty the meat, the higher the price:  It’s ¥160 for a couple of pieces of lean, while medium fatty costs ¥280.

The beef on the menu is premium Japanese beef  (wagyu), which is also often enjoyed raw, though usually not served as sushi. Unluckily for the owners, the store opened just as reports of a foot and mouth outbreak in Miyazaki were hitting the front pages, meaning that the ongoing cattle cull could make this item harder to come by.

Japanese consumption of meat has been on the rise for decades and while veggie restaurants have been taking off recently, plenty of restauranteurs are still appealing to the nation’s more carnivorous nature. Last year we saw the opening of a theme park dedicated to meat in Tokyo. Visitors to Meatrea can indulge their predilection for animal flesh in all manner of unusual forms, perhaps the most bizarre of which is a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) parfait. Those looking for more extreme sweet meat, there is raw horse meat ice cream (basashi ice) made by Ice Tengoku, which specializes in novelty ice cream flavors.

If this sort of fare whets your appetite, check out Time Out Tokyo’s guide to restaurants that serve raw meat. For those who are leery of consuming meat raw, you’ll be happy to hear that Spam sushi is also enjoyed in Japan. Personally, though, I’d rather chow down on raw horse meat, which has a sweet and succulent taste that beats the processed tinned taste of Spam any day.

Horse meat photo by shrk

Japan by the numbers (06.15.10)

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

 


Giving the gift of experience

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Give him something he'll remember

A gift like no other gift

Instead of golf balls or bottles of whiskey for Fathers’ Day, dads in Japan this year may be getting time on the links or a day on a Ducati. “Experience gift catalogs” are gaining in popularity as an easy way to give unusual presents for all occasions.

“I think people are looking for something new,” says Tak Nishimura, CEO of Japan’s first experience gift catalog company. “It’s wonderful to give your mother carnations on Mothers’ day, but I think people like the idea of doing something more original, too. Flowers die. When you give someone an experience, that’s a memory that lasts forever.”

Traditional gift catalogs have been used as a way to give presents to guests at weddings or funerals or prizes to amateur sports winners since the late ’80s. The giver picks a price range and sends the giftee a catalog of items that are all the same pre-specified, undisclosed price. Depending on the brand and price range, the catalogs can include a huge variety of products from fruit, tea, wine and ice cream to jewelry, wallets and designer handbags. Names of popular catalogs, such as “Take Your Choice” and “Ring Bell,” hint at how they work: Pick an item, tell the catalog company, and it’s soon on the doorstep.

As with conventional gift catalogs, the experience giver determines the amount of the present, and the color-coded catalog contains only items that cost that much. At Sow Experience, they go from Blue, in which all the experiences are ¥5,250 to Silver, at ¥52,500. The catalogs, of course, don’t have prices in them. There are catalogs grouped by activity, like dining; occasion, like new baby; or type of recipient, like mother, boyfriend or couple. The activities can be as adventurous or relaxing as the recipient wants, from guided outdoor sports like canyoning and canoeing trips to quieter, safer pursuits like jeweled manicures or time in an oxygen capsule. Fitness buffs could have a yoga or bouldering session, while the fashion-inclined (or challenged) could choose an hour with a stylist. The pottery-throwing lesson is one of the most popular gifts now, Nishimura says. Gifts can be redeemed online.

Nishimura founded Sow Experience in 2005, fresh out of college and looking for a business idea. The concept was becoming popular in England at that time, and he thought it could work in Japan. From the initial 10 experiences, there are now about 100 (the most recent addition is a “doll fashion” class), with 30 new ones added since last year. He says he’s happy to see the swarm of competitors that has sprung up. Beliem, which covers similar options and price points as Sow Experience, will also organize group outings on horseback or cocktail parties at Tokyo’s frozen Icebar, and Iiyu specializes in package trips to hot spring and golf resorts – and ups the ante with experiences for up to ¥105,630.

Nishimura says sales are up 30% over last year, and the company is starting to expand beyond individuals to business-to-business sales: “If someone buys a new car, now, Toyota might give them our experience catalog to choose from as a thank-you present.”

Nishimura says the best part about giving an experience is that it can be the final little push to get someone to do something he’s always wanted to try but never gotten around to. So, what to get the salaryman who has everything? For Fathers’ Day, Sow Experience recommends paragliding, hot stone saunas, a shoe shine or shoe shine lessons. Hey, give a man a shoe shine, and he’s got shiny shoes. Give him shoe shine lessons, and that’s a present he can use for life.

Pulse Rate: ‘Free rent’ pricing aims to fill up empty apartments

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Summer heat doesn’t just slow down pedestrians in Japan – it also stifles the real estate industry. Most of this is due to the Japanese employment/academic calendar, which begins in April every year and ends the following March. Between February and April, students move closer to the schools where they will matriculate, and new company employees move out of the house and start life as a shakaijin (社会人, working adult).

As covered on the June 11 broadcast of “Gacchiri Academy,” a weekly info-variety program on TBS about saving money, once everyone gets settled, real estate agents have to scramble to fill the empty rooms. They can’t lower rents because that causes current tenants to complain and also reduces the value of the property. In the absolute worst cases, rooms that don’t find tenants by the end of April remain empty for a full calendar year. In response, some real estate agents have started offering “free rent” (フリーレント) deals on certain rooms.

No, “free rent” does not imply totally free, but it does mean that the first two months are free. Additionally, many of these have no “key money” payment to the landlord, which can be as much as two months rent, and no introduction fee to the agency. The only thing required is a month’s rent for deposit. The goal of the “free rent” discount is to get bodies into the room so that the landlord can stop taking losses.

Shortly after the broadcast, the term “free rent” skyrocketed to the top of the Google Trends keyword searches. Clearly, there is a near-constant hunt for bargain living spaces in Japan. Japan Pulse has previously covered the boom in room sharing. Yen for Living has also covered room sharing as well as discounts on rooms where people have died. Gacchiri Academy suggested that a little negotiation might be a previously unconsidered tactic – real estate agents and landlords might be willing to offer the free rent policy for rooms that were previously not discounted.

I want my Ustream TV

Friday, June 11th, 2010

There are very few live performances up on Nico Nico Douga right now

There are very few live performances up on Nico Nico Douga right now

At recent gig in Tokyo broadcast live over Ustream, a group of Visual Kei bands showed off their wild hair and musical style to the world, gaining a virtual audience of nearly 2,000, in addition to those attending in person. The people behind the live stream were Sync Music Japan, a group founded in March this year that have made it their mission to promote Japanese music at a global level.

In an industry fiercely protective of copyright, it’s unusual to see free content like this broadcast live. Management makes sure that unauthorized content doesn’t leak out; even at small gigs, people are admonished for trying to video proceedings. But with the advent of apps for the iPhone that allow users to broadcast live over Ustream last year, it’s hard to see how at crowded gigs at least, record labels can keep a lid on free content leaking out. Recently, Cerevo Cam Live!, a palm-sized digital camera with the ability to stream high-quality video over 3G connections to Ustream, was released to the market, meaning that it’s now theoretically possible to stream pirate-quality live content.

On first glance, Ustream and Nico Nico Douga (a Japanese website that offers a live streaming service) would appear to be largely free of unauthorized content. Both Ustream and Nico Nico Douga have a policy of policing themselves and remove videos that infringe copyright. Currently, the technology to live-stream from handheld devices at gigs is relatively new but surely the temptation is strong. Will the record companies and live streaming websites be able to keep up once the technology becomes more accessible?

Interestingly, a couple of “live houses” (gig venues) have decided to matters into their own hands. Bungajan in Tokyo are streaming gigs live (presumably with the cooperation of band management) and Osaka’s Shangri-la Live House has its own Ustream channel that features interviews with bands who are about to perform at the venue.

Fans of Japanese music can register with Nico Nico Douga, which has a variety of music channels featuring authorized videos and performances by Japanese bands. For live performances check out Bungajan on Ustream or keep an eye out for gigs at larger venues by checking the Sync Music Japan MySpace page.

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