Archive for July, 2010

Another heaping tablespoon of taberu rayu, please

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Rayu is a spicy red oil that is never far at hand at ramen shops or anywhere that the fried or steamed dumplings called gyoza are served.

"Slightly spicy but delicious when you eat it" rayu in Sugamo

“Slightly spicy but delicious when you eat it” rayu in Sugamo

In the last year or so, though, the condiment (sometimes seen written as la-yu) has taken center stage in a chunkier, more flavorful incarnation that has gone from foodie indulgence to the fast-food mainstream. Taberu, or edible, rayu has the same chili-infused sesame oil base as the pourable stuff, but it’s packed with minced chunks of fried garlic and onion that give it a chunky, spoonable consistency.  Momoya released jars of it one year ago with a mouthful of a name that translates to “It looks spicy but isn’t too spicy but is a bit spicy” last year. When it sold out, S&B Foods released a not-so-subtle copycat version called “Pour it on! Main dish rayu, a bit spicy.” Now it’s gone well beyond grocery store shelves and is turning up as a potato chip flavor, a tonkatsu topping, and most recently, glopped on the patties at Japan’s homegrown burger joint Mos Burger.

The Mos Burger concoction, which had people lining up outside an Akihabara location on its first day, is a “collaboration” with morning TV show “Sukkiri!” star Terry Itou.  The full name of the burger is “Terry Itou’s crunchy rayu burger.” Mos sold some 2.1 million of them, twice as many as anticipated in the original sale period of July 10 to 28. For those who missed out the first time around, they’re going to serve up another million of the spicy burgers at ¥390 for a regular burger and ¥420 for one with cheese. (The cheese, incidentally was recommended in one review to cut the spice for people who found it too hot.)

Oricon Gourmet says the hot weather has boosted sales and inspired all kinds of restaurants to put the rayu on all kinds of foods, as spicy foods are thought to be especially good on hot days. At First Kitchen, Lettuce Bacon Taberu Rayu Pasta hit the menu in mid-July. Red-tinged potato chips from both Calbee and Yamazaki Nabisco are in convenience stores. Family restaurant chain Gusto and noodle shop Bamiyan each have a cold noodle dish with it.

And at least one intrepid blogger made some at home, provided the recipe, and then took it to the only next logical step – rayu over vanilla ice cream. Can a commercial version be far behind? Let us know if you find taberu rayu any place unexpected.

Japan by the numbers (07.29.10)

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Keeping track of cashless spending

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Suica IC card can be charged with money at JR stations in order to make purchases in stores

A Suica IC card, which can be charged with money at JR stations in order to make purchases in stores

When it comes to credit, the Japanese have a cleaner conscience than most nationalities. If you’re talking about everyday purchases, then most would chose cash over credit cards. It’s a healthy attitude that runs counter to the “buy now, pay later” philosophy so rife in my native country (the U.K. in case you’re wondering). That’s not to say that plastic is not in fashion. In recent years there has been a huge rise in the popularity of IC cards and cell-phone chips that can be used to pay for items in place of cash by swiping them through a device at the checkout – users charge up their devices with cash (or credit) before they buy.

The popularity of this method of payment has been growing. According to the Wall Street Journal the number of electronic purchases in the first half of 2010 grew by 39 percent when compared to the same period last year and the most popular electronic money provider continues to be Edy, who, according to a recent survey by Rakuten, enjoys a healthy 29 percent share of the e-money market.

Though Japanese consumers are beginning to enjoy the benefits of carrying around a lighter cashless wallet, there is a downside. Unless you keep a mental track of your balance, you won’t know how much money you’ve got left on your card before you swipe, which can lead to embarrassment at the checkout.

This month a solution was introduced by Sony who has made a free downloadable program called FLO:Q available to users of Japan’s four major e-money providers: Edy, Suica, nanaco and WAON. The program allows users to track the balance of their cards and payment history, which is an attractive function for many housewives who traditionally keep records of household accounts on paper.

The downside is that you have to invest in Sony’s e-money reading device PaSoRi in order to scan the information into your computer from your card or cell phone. The PaSoRi costs nearly ¥4,000 on Amazon, making it a bit pricey for those on a budget. Sony do plan to offer users special discounts in the future based on their age, gender and location, making the investment look a little bit more attractive.

Rakuten’s survey indicates that Japanese are fully embracing e-money and would like to see more places accepting this form of payment, indicating that the future looks bright for a cash-free debt-free future.

Pulsations (07.29.10)

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Here are the latest Pulsations, links to fresh stories and visuals about Japan, shout-outs to fellow bloggers, and highly clickable stuff that we think you might enjoy.

In no particular order, they are . . .

Pulse Rate: ikyu.com

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Ikyu

While not exactly offering bargain basement prices, travel discounts can be found at Ikyu.com

In general there is a hesitancy in Japan to discount prices for goods and services. The price for a six pack of beer, for example, is same price as six individual beers. Landlords are wary to reduce rents even to fill up rooms that may be empty for a long period of time, and hotels rarely give price breaks – as reported by Yen For Living, even a drastic reduction in highway tolls did not increase overnight stays for travelers. The Internet, however, has at least helped consumers pinpoint the companies that have lowered their prices, which in turn has helped stimulate competition.

Recently the website 一休.COM (www.ikyu.com) made it to the No. 4 spot of  Goo keywords, perhaps because it was being inundated by visitors trying to take advantage of the site’s 10-year anniversary specials and other summer specials during the current summer vacation. While the site does provide discounted hotels, it’s not exactly targeted at budget travelers – some of the rooms go for as much as ¥33,000/night for two people. There is an English site to take advantage of (which even includes a frequently updated blog about Japan), but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to have the site’s full line of rooms, so using the Japanese side is recommended.

Budget travelers can look to Rakuten Travel for a larger selection of cheaper digs. Rakuten is also equipped with an English site, but if you can navigate the Japanese, you can take advantage of the full-featured search engine to narrow down housing by station, maximum price and distance from station. By searching strategically, you can find rooms at fantastic value. For example, a semi-double at City Hotel Hiroki at Kamata Station (a station that offers a decent amount of edible, drinkable and shop-able entertainment and isn’t far from central Tokyo on the Keihin-Tohoku Line) runs ¥5,400/night for two people this upcoming weekend. (If your name happens to be Hiroki, you can take advantage of the special discount rate of ¥5,000/night!)

Other websites are bringing down the price of goods. Kakaku.com has long offered significant discounts on a variety of different merchandise. For those looking to stay out of the sun while shopping for groceries, the bulk liquor store Kakuyasu has an impressive online presence that offers free delivery 365 days a year to Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka on any order, even if it’s as little as a single can of beer. Their prices are nothing to scoff at either – the Suntory Premium Malts costs a mere ¥220/can for a 24-pack, and Asahi Super Dry is ¥193/can. Although the bulk of the products are alcohol-related, there is a decent selection of snacks and basic foodstuffs. You can get your salsa and tortilla chip fix and, if you’ve got the moral and intestinal fortitude for it, try some whale curry.

GPS navigation for cyclists gathers speed

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Tokyo Zoo Project allows you to take an animal shaped bike tour of the city

Tokyo Zoo Project allows you to take an animal shaped bike tour of the city

One of the best ways to get around Tokyo is by bike: the city’s cyclists are able to whizz down alleys too narrow for most traffic, sail the opposite way down a one-way street and bypass traffic jams by hopping up onto the sidewalk when necessary. Cycling around the city this way you won’t get much hassle from local policemen, who tend to turn a blind eye to such minor traffic infractions, but you might find yourself stymied by the maze-like nature of Tokyo’s streets.

These days there are a number of GPS devices available for the adventurous cyclist who wants to explore the city streets, but with so many phones possessing GPS capability is it worth investing in such a device? Surprisingly, while car-compatible GPS apps for cell phones proliferate, there’s not much available for cyclists yet. As mentioned earlier, bicycles have more access to the narrower byways of Tokyo’s streets, so using a pedestrian app like AU’s Easy Navi Walk is preferable to a system designed for motorist that might have you cycling down polluted traffic clogged streets.

In April this year DoCoMo updated their car navigation system, iMapFan, to include a mode aimed at cyclists to allow users to identify bike friendly routes. At ¥315 a month, DoCoMo’s system has the edge over devices such as Sony’s NV-U35, which costs nearly ¥30,000. The problem though is that, unlike custom-made devices, no accompanying handlebar mount for cell phones has come out on the market, meaning that cyclists still have to keep stopping to consult their maps. Also, the NV-U35 is waterproof, so unless you’re buying a brand new waterproof phone you might find a cell phone impossible to use in wet weather.

To promote NV-U35 (which was released on the market earlier this year), Sony has come up with a fun summer campaign that allows cyclists to discover the backstreets of Tokyo. Pedal pushers can follow a series of themed routes that describe the shape of an animal through the city streets by using the gadget. Each route has a cute name to suit its species, for example, “The Giraffe Who Came To Compare His Height With Sky Tree Tower.” That route takes you past the site of the tower (which is currently under construction but still a pretty impressive height of nearly 400 meters) and includes recommended coffee shops and scenic spots to stop off at along the way.

Currently there are three routes available on the Tokyo Zoo Project website, but by August that will have grown to 10 to create a zoo of animal routes that spread out across the city. The general public are also invited to submit their own ideas for routes via Twitter (@tokyozoopj) making the campaign interactive.

If bicycle navigation systems take off, local policemen are going to spend less time giving out directions and more time making sure people are observing the rules of the road, making the advent of GPS both a good and bad thing for cyclists.

Hot drugstore finds for quick cool-downs

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Hey, cool eyes.

Hey, cool eyes.

How hot is it? So hot the heat has a name. In 2007, the Japanese Meteorological Agency started calling days that got over 35 degrees C moushobi, which means “extremely hot day.” (Manatsubi and natsubi, respectively, are 30-34 and 25-29 degrees. Impress your friends!) Turn on the TV or browse a few Japanese blogs, and you’ll see the word moushobi has been getting a workout in the past weeks, with many parts of Japan experiencing day after day of extreme heat. Days when waving an uchiwa is too much work, and even engineered cool fabrics feel like too much to wear. Chemistry comes to the rescue, with creams, lotions, sheets, gels and sprays to keep skin cool and make sweat evaporate quickly, reducing stickiness.

Bub Cool effervescent bath tablets from Kao have cooling ingredients to leave the body feeling cool after a hot bath. Confused? It comes in four scents, including Mint and, new this year, Oriental Spa. Bub Shower is a lotion from the same line that you put on in the shower and then rinse off. It makes the skin feel (disconcertingly) cool and makes sweat evaporate quickly, reducing stickiness.

Ice spray

Gatsby’s Ice Spray

Convenience store bottles of Gerolsteiner, a sparkling German mineral water that is making a push to increase sales in Japan, now come with a free gift attached, a mildly mentholated sheet to refresh the eyes. Putting mild menthol over your eyes has about the effect you might expect: It will definitely wake you up, but you might be a bit squinty for a few minutes.

Gatsby’s “Ice-type” line of products is aimed at men, but women might want to swab down with them, too. Or, you know, so we hear. Moist towelettes, spray-on deodorant and a body wash that is new this summer all come in the line’s snowflake packaging. The wet wipes are called “Facial Paper,” but make no mistake, they’re moist and they are tingly. The deodorant comes in “Cold Ocean” and “Ice Citrus” aerosol and as “Body Water” in pump spray bottles.

For a similarly icy effect in a more natural form,  Hakka Yu (peppermint oil) products from Kitami Hakka Tsusho are a good bet. They’ve got everything from mint salt to mint soap to mint toothpicks, but the mint oil spray is what will make you feel like you’ve been dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Neck-cooling scarves are popping up at outdoor markets and are also available online at Rakuten. They are basically bandanas stitched into tubes, with dry polymer powder inside. When soaked in cold water, the powder expands into a moist gel. One popular brand is Shirokuma no kimochi. Will it really leave you “feeling like a polar bear?” Maybe one that’s a bit damp around the neck.

Shirt Cool is a clothing spray that promises to deliver “a cool feeling every time you sweat.” Careful, though: The active ingredients are l-methanol and ethanol, so  it will keep you cool . . . as long as you follow the instructions to keep the stuff away from any open flames.

Finally, there’s always the real thing. Most shops with freezers sell cups of crushed ice, an idea that seems more ingenious with every moushobi that goes by.

Japan by the numbers (07.23.10)

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

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